Former Leeds United defender Neil Aspin loves the fans but pulls no punches on the club he played for and supported as a boy. Leon Wobschall reports.
SUCH was the gravitas of Leeds United in the 1970s that its reach could even infiltrate the tribal boundaries of that most notorious of footballing hotbeds. The north east.
Those born on the banks of the River Tyne have black and white blood coursing through their veins. That’s the theory at any rate, yet it didn’t apply in the case of a young Neil Aspin.
Granted, the Gateshead lad did go onto play for the club he grew up supporting. The United of Leeds, not Newcastle.
Aspin told the YEP: “I supported Leeds from when they played Sunderland in the FA Cup final in 1973 and it was always Leeds.
“The first game I went to see Leeds was the year they won the league in 1973-74 and beat Newcastle 1-0 at St James’ Park and Paul Madeley scored.
“I used to go with my dad and he supported Newcastle and I always looked at the boards for the half-time scores to see how Leeds were getting on.”
Aspin’s dreams, on one level at least, were realised when he stepped out for Leeds as a 16-year-old kid against Ipswich at Elland Road in February 1982, becoming the second youngest player for the club behind Peter Lorimer.
He went on to represent Leeds around 250 times before departing for Port Vale in 1988, sampling the good and the not so good of the eighties, a largely troubled decade for United.
It was a time when Leeds suffered the ignominy of relegation from the top-flight in 1981-82, when Aspin made his debut under Allan Clarke in circumstances which were far from the easiest for a teenager barely out of school.
Aspin, 50, still resident in Yorkshire, managing FC Halifax Town, having previously managed Harrogate Town, said: “I remember making my debut at 16 and being so young, you always remember that; especially against a side like Ipswich.
“Eddie Gray was actually still playing then and there were others such as Frank Gray and Kenny Burns and there were some vastly experienced players.
“Ipswich at the time were top of the league and a big deal. It was a big occasion.
“As a young lad supporting Leeds, to make my debut was the stuff of my dreams.
“But looking back at things now, it was a difficult time too, as there was a lot of unrest between the players and the manager and a lot that I really couldn’t take in at that age.
“Some players were making it really difficult for you to go into the team and for a 16-year-old making their debut, you’d expect a lot more help than I got.”
Aspin was one of a host of fresh-faced players off United’s production line who were assigned with quickly becoming men in that tumultuous mid-80s era when the club secured more headlines off the pitch than on it.
A familiar presence with his shock of thinning blond hair patrolling the right-hand flank of Leeds’ defence, Aspin won over the United faithful with his commitment and endeavour, as you would expect from someone possessing his north-east roots.
He featured in those painful 1986-87 play-off episodes against Charlton Athletic and in the run to the FA Cup semi-finals that campaign, even if the semi-final appointment with Coventry forced him to postpone his wedding.
Assessing his time at the club, Aspin added: “It was good and bad for me. Leeds got relegated and things were difficult, but it gave them time to give opportunities to people like myself and all the other players who came through.
“It was just a shame Eddie wasn’t given longer as manager as he had brought all the young players through and he wanted to keep them all together. You look at how some of them developed elsewhere.
“I remember the semi-final when I supposed to be getting married.
“It is just one of those things as you don’t expect to be playing on a Sunday in a cup tie.
“It was obviously a fantastic occasion although a disappointing result. I also remember the first goal I scored for Leeds in front of the Kop end for the first time which was special as well.”
Many United fans who cut their teeth supporting the club in some truly dark times in the 80s are again digging deep, given a past decade which has been tough in the extreme.
For Aspin, his respect and empathy with the supporters for what they have had to endure is heartfelt and genuine.
He added: “Now I am a bit older, I can look at things differently. The thing about Leeds that is great is the supporters.
“Since I have left, I have looked at Leeds in a slightly different light as the way it has been run over the years has been absolutely diabolical. I have also had no favours from them myself since I left.
“They wouldn’t play our team for my testimonial, which I thought was poor and with the management they had at the time, I found it very difficult to get any favours from Leeds.
“That is the club, but the fans have been absolutely superb and it is them who have been short-changed over the years and I really feel for them because I have friends who still go week in, week out.
“Their support deserves a lot better than what they have been given from the club over the years.
“I will always be a supporter in the fact they are my boyhood team. The fans are tremendous, but other things leave a lot to be desired.
“The fans are the one good thing, the only thing, that they have going for them, some would say.”