10 March 1939 - 25 September 2021
Sunderland: 27 December 1957 - 8 March 1971
As manager: 5 March 1984 - 24 May 1985
SAFC career: 452+6 appearances, 4 goals.
As manager: 66 games
Club historian Rob Mason pays tribute, along with Jim Montgomery, Cec Irwin, George Herd, Gary Bennett and Malcolm Bramley.
We were immensely saddened to learn of the death of Len Ashurst.
No one has played more games as an outfield player for Sunderland than Len, who was so proud of his total of 458 appearances that he included it as part of his autograph.
Goalkeeper Jim Montgomery is the only man to play more than ‘Lennie the Lion’, who was in the team when Monty first came into the side.
“When you came into the first team in those days you didn’t really speak to the senior players, but Lennie looked after you," Jim remembers.
"Pointing you in the right direction and talking to you, as did Charlie Hurley and Jimmy McNab. If you needed Len, he was always there.
"As a player, Lennie would have kicked his granny because he was a winner. Over the years we had relative gentlemen at right-back, people like Colin Nelson, Cecil Irwin and Dick Malone, but at left-back Len put the fear of God into outside rights.
Len always gave everything on the pitch, but off it he was a family man who was a perfect gentleman and was always immaculate in collar and tie.”
Ashurst was one of three debutants in a game against Ipswich on 20 September 1958. The trio of Ashurst, Cecil Irwin and Jimmy McNab went on to make over 1,100 appearances for the club, Irwin and Ashurst becoming known as ‘Cec and Len, the full-back men'.
“It’s terrible news to hear about Len," said Irwin, I’m very sorry to learn of it. He was a whole-hearted player. Wingers couldn’t get past him. He was a good stopper and he could play a bit. If there was ever a player who gave 100%, it would be Lennie.”
1964 promotion winning teammate George Herd agrees.
“Len was a very good full-back. He played in every game of the 1964 promotion side, which was a very good team that we had. It was definitely the highlight of my time at Sunderland.
"After Len finished playing I saw for myself what a brilliant manager and coach he was. He took me out to Kuwait to work with him for a year. He was helping me out which is what he did with a lot of people and I always appreciated that.
Len will be a big miss. We played golf together and he was a great lad, a funny lad and I’m very sad to hear the news.”
Fifth on the list of all time Sunderland appearances is Gary Bennett, who owes his place in club history to Ashurst. He managed Gary at Cardiff before signing him for Sunderland.
“Len played a big part in my life," explained Bennett.
"Without Len I might not have been where I am now, in football and in life. Through Len I got the opportunity to play top league football with Sunderland and that led to me meeting my wife and having my children. Len played a huge part in my life, not just as a manager but as a person.
"Len was always very chirpy and a lovely fella to get on with. He was a winner and his attitude rubbed off on me.”
Len was 82. In the week of his 70th birthday, he published a self-penned autobiography, “Left Back In Time.’
While I worked with Len on the book, I take no credit for it as unlike almost all football autobiographies, Len wrote it himself and it is all the more authentic for that.
A Liverpudlian, Len won caps for England at youth level and was massively disappointed when Liverpool let him go. After signing for Wolves, when Sunderland coach George Curtis learned of this the pair concocted a story that led to Wolves releasing Len to go back to Merseyside and sign for Prescot Cables.
However, as planned Sunderland stepped in and signed him after one game, Len becoming a fixture in the side from the late fifties to the early seventies.
He finished his playing days as player-manager of Hartlepool United and went on to manage Gillingham, Sheffield Wednesday, Newport County and Cardiff City, who he managed twice, either side of his spell as Sunderland manager.
He took Sunderland to their first ever League Cup final in 1985 but was powerless to stop the side being relegated in a year of boardroom turmoil. Len took both Cardiff and Newport to promotion. He also won the Welsh Cup with Newport before astonishingly taking them to the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
He also manged the national sides of Kuwait and Qatar, as well as Al-Wakrah in Qatar and coaching in Malaysia. In all, Ashurst spent over half a century in the game proudly becoming inducted into both the League Managers’ Association’s 1,000 club and the SAFC Hall of Fame.
After management, he was influential in helping the FA create the Academy system and spent many years as a Premier League Match Delegate assessing match officials.
Over and above all this, Len Ashurst was ultra-professional, had one of the best contacts books in the game and was a loyal and trusted person who was married to Val 60 years ago this year. He loved his home city Liverpool, but spent his final years in Whitburn, referring to Wearside as ‘God’s Country.’
Secretary of the Sunderland Senior Supporters’ Association, Malcolm Bramley has remained a close lifelong friend.
“I met Len in 1962 on the day I walked into Roker Park to start work as an office boy and we later worked together at Gillingham FC, a great friendship that spanned 60 years.
"I'm devasted at his passing, but have some great memories to look back on.”