Red, Wolf, Tiger, Black Cat – Len Ashurst

Len Ashurst, pictured in the 1980s

This story was originally scheduled to appear in the match programme for the game against Leek Town on March 30th, 2019. However, the game was postponed, and the programme was re-used for the rearranged game on 9th April, 2019. During the research for this feature, I was able to have a telephone conversation with Len, to confirm some of the details. He was very helpful, and still takes a keen interest in footballing matters on Merseyside.

Len Ashurst was born in March 1939 in Fazakerley, Liverpool. Initially a centre-half, he was moved to left-back by Liverpool Schoolboys as the team were short on naturally left-footed players, and he helped the side to win the English Schools Trophy with an 8–1 aggregate win over Southampton Schoolboys.

He was signed to the ground staff at Liverpool in 1954. He was also serving an apprenticeship as a compositor at a printers called Elliot & Yeoman in Liverpool. Ashurst spent three years on Liverpool’s books and became an England youth international, winning seven caps in the 1956–57 season.

Having just returned from an England trip to Barcelona, Ashurst found a letter waiting for him, telling him to report to Anfield for his debut with the reserve-team the following day. Ashurst had just played three games in four days in Spain and, not surprisingly, played poorly for the Reds second string. After that game the Liverpool manager, Phil Taylor, called Ashurst into his office and told him that he was not being offered a professional contract and was being released.

Die-hard Reds fan, Len Ashurst’s world was suddenly turned upside down. [Some years later, Bill Shankly would tell him, “Lenny, you should’a been a Liverpool player, laddie”]

The devastated player quickly received offers from two other clubs – Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Coming from a family of Liverpudlians, Everton was never an option and Ashurst was signed by Stan Cullis for Wolverhampton Wanderers on amateur terms for the 1957-58 season. Soon after his arrival in the Midlands he was selected for a Wolves’ third team game at Bilston. Whilst waiting at Molineux to board the coach, the Sunderland first team arrived for their league game against Wolves.

The England youth coach George Curtis was assisting Sunderland manager Alan Brown. Curtis expressed surprise to see Ashurst standing there and when told that he was playing for Wolves’ third team, he advised young Len to secure his release and there would be a professional contract waiting for him at Sunderland. Ashurst formulated a plan to facilitate the move.

In order to gain his release from Wolves, the young scouser boldly told the formidable Cullis that he didn’t like the travelling, nor the set-up he found himself in Molyneux, and wanted to leave professional football to continue his printing apprenticeship at home, and to play, as an amateur, for Prescot Cables. Cullis reluctantly, but immediately, agreed, although if had known it was a ploy, it is unlikely that he would’ve been so amenable!

During a recent conversation with Len Ashurst, I asked him why he had chosen Prescot Cables over the other potential clubs on Merseyside. He told me that it had been on the suggestion of his Dad, as Cables were doing well and were, probably, the top team, locally, at the time. [Cables had won the Lancashire Combination in 1957, and just a few weeks before his move had reached the first round proper of the F.A. Cup for the first time in their history].

Ashurst approached Cables as a free agent and was immediately signed on. I also asked Len, if the Cables management was aware of the plan to move to Sunderland. He confirmed that he had kept his intentions to himself!

Len Ashurst made his debut for Cables second string against Horwich RMI Reserves, at Hope Street on 7th December 1957, and made a favourable impression in a 2 – 1 defeat, in a team which included six professionals with first team experience. Ashurst also played the following week for the Reserves at Lytham, before the club received a seven-day notice from Sunderland to talk to the player.

Sunderland had secured a printing apprenticeship in the North East, enabling Ashurst to transfer his indentures, and he signed part-time professional forms at Roker Park on 27th December 1957. He made his debut for the reserve team the following day.

As an Amateur, Cables did not receive any fee, or goodwill payment from Sunderland for the move.

Ashurst first appeared for the first team in September 1958, and went on to make 458 appearances for Sunderland, putting him second in the all-time appearances list in the club’s history, and one of only two outfield players to top 400 appearances. He scored four Sunderland goals during his 13 years at the club. A ferocious and fearless tackler, and a little ‘hot-headed’ in his early years, he earned the nickname “Psycho”, long before it was famously applied to Stuart Pearce. Ashurst soon settled down to become a solid and reliable full back. Remarkably, he only gained one cap – an appearance for England under-23’s against West Germany at White Hart Lane in 1961.

He moved to Hartlepool United, as player manager in 1970, playing 53 times and scoring twice.

Ashurst was a real no-nonsense kind of manager, who often bemused his players with unusual expressions to motivate his teams, saying things like, ‘I want you to go out and eat rocks‘ or ‘go and rip the doors up‘.

He went on to manage Gillingham, Sheffield Wednesday, Newport County (overseeing the most successful period in the club’s history, including promotion to the Third Division, winning the Welsh Cup, and reaching the quarter finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, in 1980/81, before losing to Carl Zeiss Jena) and Cardiff City (securing promotion from the third division in 1982/83), before returning to Sunderland as manager in March 1984.

Despite taking them to their first ever League Cup final, his time as Sunderland manager was not successful, and the team was relegated from the first division. Ashurst was sacked in May 1985, and took a role as coach with the Kuwait national football team and later the Qatar national football team.

After returning to England, he was appointed assistant manager of Blackpool and then, in September 1989, he returned for a second spell as manager of Cardiff City. He spent two years at Ninian Park, before resigning in 1991 as the team struggled both on and off the pitch. His last managerial role was a one-year stay at Weymouth.

During the mid-1990s, Ashurst became heavily involved in an administrator’s role at the Football Association. In 2002, he became a Premier League match delegate, and was tasked with independent assessment of match officials.

Considered a legend in his adopted Wearside, Ashurst now lives in quiet retirement in Whitburn, Sunderland, with his wife, Valerie.

Roy McDonald