Leeds fan and author, Jon Howe shares his thoughts on one of the great unassuming heroes of 1980s Leeds United…
Cult status amongst Leeds fans is almost as cherished as hero status. We long for our Molenaar’s, Storrie’s, Flynn’s, Haddock’s, Hughes’ and Shutt’s as much as we do our Strachan’s Giles’ and Viduka’s. Let’s be honest, we’ve spent considerably more time watching mediocre non-achievers than we have trophy-winners. So the qualities that lift our spirits on a bleak winter afternoon, such as the comical barging into the advertising boards of one of the many Andros Townsend incarnations that have crossed our path over the years, are perhaps higher up the priority list than whether a player can withstand the relentless tension of a title-winning campaign.
For this reason, some of the above are amongst the players voted into my recent book ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’. Leeds fans admire players that display spirit and hard work as much as those that take the glory. The club’s history is littered with seasoned campaigners that do the unglamorous shift and leave others to enjoy the riches. Be it Wilf Copping, Grenville Hair, Jimmy Dunn or Willie Bell, a dependable also-ran doesn’t just make up the numbers for the Elland Road faithful. The book is not just about honour and distinction, it is as much about those uncelebrated cogs in the wheel that have contributed to our club’s ongoing and sometimes perilous existence, at a time when, crucially, few others did.
And so we come to Neil Aspin, whose Leeds United career timeline highlights a potential for sadistic tendencies, perfectly book-ending, as it does, one of the most horrific periods of the club’s history. As Howard Wilkinson masterminded Leeds’ long overdue escape from the suffocating wilderness of the old Second Division in 1989, it would seem Aspin’s penchant for ritual pain and humiliation could only be satiated by a ten year stint at Port Vale. So off he went.
Of course I’m being flippant, it wasn’t Aspin’s choice to leave. Nobody could have been more loyal to the cause throughout the drudgery of the mid-1980s, and anyone who experienced the 1982-1989 period, be it fans or players alike, still wear that like a badge of honour. You can’t help but sympathise that Aspin suffered the ignominy of 5-1 thrashings at Shrewsbury and 7-2 thrashings at Stoke (at a time when Stoke were ****, I should add) and countless other life-draining degradations in the mud swamps of decaying and vacated concrete wastelands, skirting the outer reaches of football’s forgotten cesspits. Yet, when the sun finally poked through the clouds, when the incessant rain stopped, the birds sang again, and we breathed invigorated life, like new born lambs in a fresh, green meadow; Aspin was cruelly discarded.
Throughout the morose toil of Leeds’ bankrupt and forlorn attempts to escape the second tier, Aspin had been a pillar of consistency, albeit a downtrodden and unfortunate-looking one. Nothing about Aspin was elegant or presentable, even when he made his debut at 16 in 1982, with the entire crowd wondering who the hell this strange looking emergency centre half was. 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 affectionate nickname ‘Skull’, but my god, what an ambassador for everything that Leeds United represents.
Such was his focused concentration on the simple task ahead, he neither noticed nor cared for such decoration. You could give him a task on the field and he would be out there doing it long after the crowd had dispersed, the floodlights turned off and the groundsman was about to lock up. Not for Aspin the adoration or the ceremony, he didn’t play to the crowd, no ego, no preening, no histrionics.
His early career was as a centre half, before the sale of Denis Irwin in 1986 opened up a permanent slot as a right back. But you knew what you would get from Aspin week-in, week-out. You would forgive him his limitations because his heart and soul was focused on the Leeds United cause. Despite hailing from the north-east he was a Leeds fan, and it showed. His tenacity and dogged persistence transmitted to the terraces, and Aspin began to embody everything the mid-1980s crowd wanted in a player. The ball might get passed him, on other occasions the player might, but never both. These weren’t pretty times and the situation called for the trenches mentality that Aspin had in spades. He maintained the ‘we shall overcome’ spirit in the 90th minute with the team 4-0 down at Charlton, when even Leeds fans knew the game was up, and gallows humour was in full swing.
Fans will never forget Aspin’s determined attacking forays. Head down he would charge forward and beat players with sheer force and belligerence, rather than skill. He had an almost child-like single-mindedness, as if someone had stolen his Big Trak and by Christ he was going to get it back. His goal against Shrewsbury in 1986 was a perfect example of a bullish insistence that nothing would get in his way. On that occasion his bloody-mindedness saw him approaching the 18-yard box with the ball implausibly still at his feet and a trail of discarded opponents in his wake. The Kop held it’s breath as the enormity of what could be about to happen hit home. Aspin dispatched a cool finish low to the Keeper’s right and the ground erupted. For some, life would never be the same again.
The end of that season, however, would produce an image of haunting distress, as Aspin applauded the fans after the Play-Off Final replay defeat to Charlton at St. Andrews. As 16,000 Leeds fans saluted their heroes following an epic campaign that had ended in double heartbreak, Aspin let his guard drop. He threw his shirt, socks and boots into the crowd and broke down in tears as he did so. Just as the crowd shouted in unison “Hey, Neil it’s OK mate, you keep the shorts” he was lead off and consoled by his manager Billy Bremner. The sight of Aspin, the fearless rock we all depended on, the functional, impersonal and robotic purveyor of steadfast sterility, openly displaying his emotions was too much for many. If it was OK for Aspin to cry, then so could we. Let it all out.
Aspin had played 54 games in that season, and he would continue for two more campaigns before Wilkinson arrived to cull much of Bremner’s old guard. It appeared on the face of it that Aspin’s rigid and defined reliability complied with Wilkinson’s prerequisite for deep trust in his players, but not so. At the age of just 24 and after 244 appearances, Skull was on his way.
It is testament to Aspin’s professionalism that he then went on to play nearly 400 games for Port Vale, and become held perhaps in even bigger affection in the Potteries. But for Leeds fans, Aspin was almost like the club mascot in the 1980s, a character with so many visible flaws you couldn’t help but love him and support him and will him on. However bad things got, there was a sort of comfort to be gained from Aspin’s omni-presence. So synonymous was he with ‘struggle’, that the very sight of Aspin in a white shirt now triggers misty-eyed remembrance of the 1980s, a time when so much of the indelible ‘Leeds’ spirit was born, and a period which hindsight allows us to look back on much more favourably than it felt at the time.
It is fitting that Aspin should be voted as number 100 in the ‘100 Greatest Players’; sufficiently in the elite to be acknowledged but on the precipice of the unexceptional. Like a loyal and trusted dog is a ‘man’s best friend’, Aspin was a similarly dutiful companion; a Leeds fan’s best friend.
Aspin wouldn’t feel comfortable rubbing shoulders with Charlton or McAllister or Yeboah, or even the other 1980s cult heroes such as Baird, Sheridan or Snodin. He didn’t seek glory he just put in a shift, in fact 244 shifts, and we, to our credit, have recognised that and will continue to recognise in the future Neil Aspin’s that maintain the club’s ongoing health through it’s many travails.
‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ is available to buy from Amazon priced £15.99.
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