The "Shack Interview" part 1
Brian: Once you had made your mind up to leave Newcastle there were a number of clubs chasing your signature, when did you first discover that Sunderland were interested in signing you?
Len: We were living in Gosforth at the time, when one night there was a knock at the door. My wife, Marj, went to answer it and discovered a funny little man with his collar turned up and his trilby pulled down over his face. The guy didn’t say who he was, just that he wanted to speak to me.
When I went to see for myself he introduced himself as Jack Hall, team scout for Sunderland. He continued: “I’ve got Bill Murray, the Sunderland manager, in his car just around the corner and he wants to speak to you.”
I had to think quickly so I told him we were going out. We weren’t of course, but I reasoned that if he was keen enough to come at night it would do no harm to make him wait another couple of hours. So we went out, although I have to confess we couldn’t get back quickly enough!
It must have been after 10 o’clock when there was another knock at the door. Sure enough, it was Jack Hall again, still with his collar up and his hat pulled over his face! He took me to the next street where Bill Murray was waiting in his car. It wasn’t parked under a lamp-post, but in the shadows in between so there was less chance of being spotted, it was real cloak and dagger stuff!
Bill Murray came straight to the point and said: “We want you to come and join us at Sunderland.” Well, you have to remember in those days nobody was supposed to talk to the player first, but Newcastle must have made it known that there was to be an auction and they were going to take the best price.
Brian: How had Sunderland gained advanced knowledge that you might be available?
Len: I later discovered that Colonel Prior, the Sunderland chairman, (pictured right) had learned this from a ‘contact’ at St James’ Park and also that the highest bidder would get the first opportunity to talk to the player. Apparently they had told Colonel Prior that the bidding was expected to be around £20,000 and if Sunderland could beat that figure, then they could discuss my interest without any binding commitment. It transpired later that Sunderland had bid £20,050, which is where the extra £50 is accounted for. Hence Bill Murray had effectively squared-up the transfer by talking to me to establish if I wanted to come, about two days before the deadline.
Brian: At the time the fee was a British record, just as it had been when you joined Newcastle from Bradford.
Len: That’s right, but the ironical thing was, Sunderland had pulled out of the bidding when I was at Bradford because they thought the fee was too high. Yet, within 18 months, they had to pay another £7,000 for me!
Brian: How did the Sunderland fans react to the club signing a player from their arch rivals?
Len: To be honest, the fans were absolutely brilliant, just as they had been at Newcastle. In fact, that was one of the main considerations when I decided to join Sunderland. The people in the North East are really smashing and I certainly didn’t want to leave the area, so moving to Roker Park was ideal in that respect.
Brian: How different was the set-up at Sunderland compared to what you had experienced at St. James’?
Len: Sunderland was a great club and really looked after their players. As well as that of course, they were First Division so the quality of opposition was much higher. Having said that, my first match in red and white stripes was against Barnsley in a friendly at Roker Park which had been arranged after Sunderland were knocked out of the F.A. Cup. If I remember rightly, it went quite well and we scored 4 or 5.
Brian: Your first season at Roker turned out to be something of a struggle with the club only avoiding relegation by the narrowest of margins. How difficult was it for a new player joining a club in that situation?
Len: My first game in the First Division was against Derby County at the Baseball Ground and we ended up getting walloped 5-1. When I arrived home late that night I told Marj: “I’m afraid I’ve dropped the biggest clanger in my life joining this club. I think they’ve just bought me to try and keep them up but there’s no way I can save them, they’re bound to be relegated!”
Brian: The following season saw a significant change in the club’s fortunes however, and a year later they almost clinched the championship.
Len: That’s right, we went very close that season. In fact, we were in pole position for most of the campaign but lost a vital home game against Manchester City towards the end of the season that effectively cost us the title. It was one of those games that stay with you for years – an absolute nightmare! City hadn’t won away from home all season and actually ended up being relegated. We, on the other hand, were undefeated at Roker Park so the game looked to be a formality. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of those days when nothing went right and we ended up losing 2-1. We even missed a penalty and when the referee ordered the kick to be retaken because the goalkeeper had moved, poor Jackie Stelling missed again!
Brian: It was during this period that the club began to invest heavily in the transfer market. How did you feel about the club trying to buy success?
Len: They had the right idea certainly, but they carried it out in the wrong way. Buying the best players is fine but you have to blend them into a fully balanced side. Unfortunately, Sunderland didn’t manage to do it.
Brian: Sunderland’s spending power earned them the nickname ‘The Bank of England Club’; did other teams resent the club because of that?
Len: I think they did, yes, but they couldn’t resent it too much because we didn’t win anything, although we did come close on a number of occasions.
Brian: Losing at the semi-final stage and missing out on an F.A. Cup final appearance in consecutive years must have been a bitter experience.
Len: It certainly was and on one of those occasions, 1955, we would have met Newcastle in the final which would have been a fantastic day for the North-East. Unfortunately, it was Manchester City who beat us again in the semi-final on a quagmire of a pitch at Villa Park. It may sound like sour grapes, but that game really shouldn’t have been played. There was so much water lying on the pitch that the players could hardly move the ball more than a few yards and as a contest it was a complete farce.
For me personally though, the following year when we lost to Birmingham City at Hillsborough, was an even greater disappointment. Our eldest son, Graham, was just a youngster at school at the time and I promised him that if we managed to get to Wembley, he could go too and see the Queen at the Cup Final. Naturally, he was very excited because the papers were full of it so you can imagine the level of disappointment when we were beaten. With hindsight though, it probably taught him a very important lesson – that you can’t win everything and you have to learn to lose and, more importantly, learn to lose properly. So, if nothing else, that semi-final defeat gave one member of my family a very important lesson in life.
Brian: Even though there were some great players in the game in those days such as Matthews, Finney and Mannion, you were widely regarded as the most skilful of the lot. Was that a natural talent or did you have to practice regularly?
Len: No, not really, but I did play quite a lot of head tennis with one or two of the lads and that certainly helped perfect the art of ball control. Some afternoons, instead of going back to training, we would set up a game under the main stand at Roker Park. Normally I partnered Ken Chisholm against Ray ‘Beebe’ Daniel and Ted Purdon.
Now ‘Chis’ was the sort of player who had the knack of always playing to his capabilities. He was never a great player, but because he performed consistently in just about every game, he was successful. To be honest, he wasn’t particularly fast and couldn’t shoot brilliantly, but he was quite skillful and could head a ball, so I’d chosen my partner well!
We would play for ‘five bob’ a time and, on average, we’d win about five out of seven games. To be honest, we could have beaten them every time, but we had to let them win a couple otherwise we’d have cleaned them out!