(Photo: Action Images via Reuters)
By Chris Dunlavy
ASK a young Leeds fans to name the darkest days in the club’s history and most will point to the post-Ridsdale wasteland.
Pose the same question of a more mature supporter, however, and you are likely to be regaled with tales of the bleak mid-1980s.
Back then, memories of greatness were still relatively fresh. It was, after all, just a decade since Don Revie’s brilliant bruisers had scythed to silverware and, in 1975, come within a crooked referee of European glory.
Yet, seven years later, the Whites found themselves in the second tier. There was no Bremner, Hunter or Clarke. Jet-setting to St Etienne and Munich was replaced by Tuesday night trips to Shrewsbury.
Money? That had all been blown in a futile bid to stay up. Which is why, for eight straight years, Leeds toiled thanklessly and hopelessly, rarely even climbing above mid-table.
But, throughout it all, there was one man those beleaguered supporters could hang their hats on. One man who would run and fight and graft in the grand tradition of Leeds teams past. His name was Neil Aspin, affectionately known to all inside Elland Road as Skull.
Though born in Gateshead, Aspin always supported Leeds. When his school held a ‘wear your shirt to class’ day, he was the only kid not dressed in the black and white of Newcastle. “I got stick,” he says, “but I didn’t care. They were my team.”
Within a few years, he would be one of them. Taken on as a schoolboy, Aspin quickly caught the eye of manager Allan Clarke and in 1982, aged just 16, he was thrown into the fray against Ipswich as an emergency centre-half.
Incredibly, it would turn out to be his one and only top-flight appearance, but for the next seven seasons his relentless, committed and brave – often to the point of foolhardy – performances kept hope alive through the darkest years.
“Nothing about Neil Aspin was elegant or presentable,” said a fan on the Leeds blog Fear and Loathing in LS11.
“He ran awkwardly, he always seemed to lose a shin pad or be nursing a cut, or need strapping of some sort. His deep, furrowed brow usually had a plaster on it.
“He was gaunt and pale, ill-looking, like he had some kind of abnormal blood group. He was balding at 16, hence the nickname ‘Skull’. But what an ambassador for everything that Leeds United represents.”
Aspin even postponed his wedding when the 1987 FA Cup semi-final with Coventry got in the way, but in 1989, after 244 appearances, he left to join Port Vale. He was still just 24.
The Valiants would see the best years of his career and he arguably became an even greater hero in the Potteries.
“Aspo was one of those guys who played with a very basic philosophy,” said Robbie Earle, who started his career with Vale before playing in the Premier League with Wimbledon. “Either the ball or the player could pass him, but never both – and he often preferred to clear the player.”
Martin Foyle, another Vale legend, added: “Aspo wasn’t one for the social side. He would keep himself to himself, but he was anything but quiet on the pitch. You could always bet on at least a 7/10 performance from him every week.”
Aspin twice won player of the year and spent ten years at Vale Park, winning promotion to the second tier in 1993-94. He left in 1999 to see out his career with Darlington, Hartlepool and Harrogate Town.
As a player, Aspin lost three play-off finals. For a while, it seemed that heartache had followed him into management.
Despite working miracles on a tight budget in his four years at Harrogate, Aspin lost in the 2006 play-off semis to Stafford, then finished one agonising place outside the top five in consecutive seasons.
Then, though, came a move to newly-formed FC Halifax and, with it, the success he never achieved on the pitch. Taking charge in early 2008, he won three promotions in four years to rise from Evo-Stik North to the Conference. In 2014, despite remaining part-time, the Shaymen sealed an incredible fifth-place finish.
Along the way, Jamie Vardy and Millwall’s Lee Gregory were propelled to stardom.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Neil,” said Halifax director Bobby Ham, “as a man and a manager. He has such a wealth of experience. He’s what I call a ‘real football man’ and he has also been there and done it.
Yet this glorious partnership would end sourly. After the play-off curse struck again, Halifax struggled to reach similar heights. Aspin was sacked in 2015 and subsequently went to manage Gateshead.
He said the lure of managing his hometown club was “irresistible”. Not, however, as irresistible as an emotional return to Vale Park. And, when the Valiants came calling in October, Aspin walked.
Nine wins from his first 18 games has more than justified his decision – and Gateshead coach Michael Cummins isn’t surprised by Aspin’s impact.
“As a player, I’d have loved to work for him,” he said. “Aspo will tell you why you are not in the team or where you need to work. And he wants everything left out on the pitch.”