Neil Aspin has been a Leeds United fan for as long as he can remember and turned out for the club as a 16-year-old. Leon Wobschall meets the ex-Whites star.
wHEN you are a nipper growing up deep in the North East, you are either black and white or red and white.
Footballing allegiances are bestowed upon you almost from the day you are born in a part of the country where the maxim that the game is a religion never rings true more.
In Durham and Northumberland, if you weren’t a Mag, you are a Mackem. Or vice-versa.
But for Gateshead-born Neil Aspin, there was a third way and it didn’t involve following the crowd and throwing your supporters’ lot in with the hordes at St James’ Park or Roker Park.
Leeds United were the ones who always floated his boat, despite being born a couple of hours’ car ride from Elland Road – and to go on and play for the club that you supported as a boy, albeit from afar, meant the world to the Geordie.
You can only imagine just what it meant to him when he was handed a shock debut at the tender age of just 16 in February 1982 – with the likes of senior men Kenny Burns, Trevor Cherry and Brian Greenhoff unavailable – as he became the second youngest-ever Whites debutant, behind one Peter Lorimer.
And the nerves in donning the famous white jersey against one of the top teams in the land in Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town were quickly overwhelmed by a massive sense of pride in the young defender.
Aspin, who has carved out a highly- successful second footballing career managing in the non-league after his playing days, said: “Leeds United was a club I’d supported from being at school and it was fantastic to play for them. Although I obviously didn’t expect to play at such a young age.
“You always remember your debut and to play at 16 was special.
“It was a surprise to play and just due to circumstances. Ipswich were a good team and it was the equivalent of playing against someone like Manchester United now.
“But the manager, Allan Clarke, had faith in me and I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me my chance.”
On how his unlikely affinity to Leeds was forged, Aspin said: “My dad used to take me to watch Newcastle, but I was never a fan. Once I’d watched Leeds from 1973 when I was eight years old, I supported them.
“I remember being at school and everyone made rosettes for the 1973 (FA Cup) final and everybody made them for Sunderland. I was the only one who did one for Leeds.
“I didn’t expect them to lose that day and thought that I was on to a safe thing! But I never changed my allegiance, even in the lean years.”
Aspin was one of the first fresh-faced youngsters off the United youth production line to be handed his chance in the early 1980s, a time when the club was in tumult both on and off the pitch and was heading for a collective fall.
The only good thing that came out of that time was that a whole host of promising talents got their chance earlier than expected and quickly became “men” in a footballing sense.
Popular for his total commitment and endeavour during many of the dark seasons in the early-to-mid 1980s, Aspin quickly won over the United faithful and while the glory days that he dreamed about in the white jersey were ultimately destined to be played out in the unlikely surroundings of his next club, Port Vale, he had plenty of moments to savour. Albeit with a couple of heart-rending near-misses.
Aspin, who played nigh on 250 games for United, said: “My time at Leeds was fantastic.
“I remember the time I made my debut. Circumstances had changed and it did give a lot of people a chance. The reality is that if Leeds had continued with their high standards of previous years, myself and others wouldn’t have got a chance.
“I remember on one occasion being one of nine players under 21 in the first team.”
On his personal highlights, Aspin said: “Obviously, there was my debut and you always remember when you score your first goal at the Kop end. The derbies and the (FA) cup semi-final (against Coventry) also stick out.
“I actually had to postpone my wedding in 1987 because the game was on a Sunday, which was really strange.
“You’d have thought that when I arranged it for Sunday, I’d have been safe... I didn’t really look ahead, but obviously had to cancel.
“Luckily I was able to get another date a bit later.
“We also had the defeat in the play-offs at the end of that season (1986-7). I remember it was a very long season that didn’t finish until June 3. It was a mixture of emotions at the end; although we were so drained after playing so many games.
“We got really close, but if we’d gone up, it would have been really difficult and it was probably better that Leeds regrouped much stronger and got promoted by winning the title.”
The prize Aspin had strived for during his early years at United – namely promotion back to the top tier where the club belonged – was joyously played out throughout 1989-90 in front of packed houses both home and away.
But having only headed to the Potteries for divisional new boys Vale in the close season of 1989 for £150,000, many in Aspin’s shoes would have been muttering the phrase “if only”.
Yet the man himself insists that his time at Elland Road had run its natural course and in terms of timing, his switch to Vale was perfectly synchronised.
The 1990s were largely a champagne time that the whole of Burslem lapped up under legendary boss John Rudge. Promotions, cup runs, Wembley appearances – two in the space of a week in the spring of 1993 – and a highest-ever post-war finish (eighth in football’s second tier in 1996-7).
Personal accolades also arrived with regularity for whole-hearted stopper Aspin, named player of the year several times for the Valiants and captain in a fair few of their halcyon moments, with his sterling service eventually leading to a testimonial in the late 1990s.
His legendary feats were such that the man universally known by Vale fans as “Aspo” was named as their all-time cult hero on Football Focus, perhaps the ultimate vindication of his time in that quarter of the Potteries, where he will forever be welcomed and bought a drink or two.
Aspin, who played almost 350 league games for Vale before heading back to the North East for brief spells at Hartlepool United and Darlington, said: “I had no regrets at leaving Leeds. I asked to leave Leeds; if they’d kicked me out, it would have been different and I’d have been more aggrieved.
“I could see with the rebuilding, that they were looking for higher-calibre players. After playing 250 games, I didn’t want to sit in the reserves, it’s not in my nature not to play.
“It was my doing to leave and I didn’t regret it.
“For me, it was better to be a big fish in a small pond at Port Vale where I was captain and my confidence grew there. In Port Vale’s history, it was the best time they ever had.
“For a number of my years there, we were higher than Stoke and if you look at the two clubs now, you could never imagine that.
“We had some good players at the time – Jon McCarthy and Steve Guppy as the two wingers and there was also Robbie Earle and Darren Beckford and Ray Walker and Dean Glover.
“We played at Wembley three times, which was nice for you could be at a club and never get that opportunity once.
“I’d have preferred to make more money, mind! But when you have John Rudge as your manager for 10 years, that’s impossible!”
Aspin has shown the same work ethic, appetite and dedication in the managerial realm, first with Harrogate Town and now with FC Halifax.
And his 46th birthday last week couldn’t have been sweeter with an early present arriving in the shape of the Evo-Stik Premier title for the Shaymen.
Aspin said: “When you have been a professional for 20 years, you want to stay in the game for as long as you can.
“Non-league football was totally different to professional football. But once I got in, I enjoyed it and a career opened up for me.”