BILLY Ayre, the most popular Blackpool manager of recent times, has lost his battle against cancer.
Ayre, boss at Bloomfield from 1990 to 1994, died last night at home in Southport aged 49, a month short of his 50th birthday.
Ayre, a fitness fanatic who ran the London Marathon two years ago, had been suffering from cancer of the lymph glands and had undergone several courses of chemotherapy.
He had first suffered from the disease seven years ago and was initially given the allclear. However, he contracted cancer again last year.
Former Seasiders star Andy Preece has been working with Ayre for the last two years at Bury. Preece was manager while Ayre was his assistant, though he had not worked for several months because of his illness.
Preece said: “I’ve only just found out myself and I am absolutely devastated. It is a sad day for everyone in football because Billy was one of the best people I have ever met or worked with.
“After only a few days working together we hit it off and he taught me so much. The last time we spoke on the phone he told me he felt guilty because he’d not been there to help me. That was the kind of bloke he was. Despite all the pain he was going through, he was still thinking of me.
“He has been undergoing major treatment and was recovering from that. The last time I spoke to him was a couple of weeks ago on the phone. It’s just hard to comprehend and it’s a huge loss.”
Ayre took over at Pool from Graham Carr in November 1990 and became a hugely popular figure.
He helped the Seasiders to two Wembley play-off finals, the second one successful in 1991-92 against Scunthorpe.
He had also been manager at a number of other clubs including Cardiff, Swansea, Halifax and Scarborough.
Pool’s reserve team coach Mike Davies, who was a Seasiders player under Ayre, was devastated at his old boss’s death.
“He was an honest hard-working man who was an excellent manager,” said Davies. “You knew where you were with Billy. We had a good bit of success when he was manager and he deserved it. Who knows what would have happened if he had been given more money to spend.
“He was a man’s man, firm but very fair with everyone and all the players had a great respect for him.
“I just pass on my sympathy to his family and my thoughts are with them.”
Francis Charles-worth, chairman of the Blackpool Supporters Association, described Ayre as one of Pool’s most popular managers.
“I remember one run we had when he was manager, when we went about 17 matches unbeaten at home,” said Charlesworth. “He was a very popular figure and well-respected.
“He didn’t have a lot of money to spend and had one or two bust-ups with the chairman, but his teams always had a great deal of passion and gave their all.”
Ex-Blackpool and England skipper JIMMY ARMFIELD said: “I liked Billy a lot. I thought he was a very nice chap.
“I saw a lot of him at the training ground. He was really wholehearted and wanted to make a go of it at Blackpool. He gave it all he had and I know he was very sorry to leave the club.
“The fans took a liking to him because he was very genuine.”
RAY McHALE, now Oldham’s chief scout after three spells as manager at Scarborough, said: “Billy came to manage the club when they were in the League. He was a lovely man, dedicated to his job. He was football through and through and nobody in the game had a bad word for him.”
JOHN RUSSELL was the Scarborough chairman who appointed Ayre in August 1994 and his wife, Gillian, was club secretary.
She said: “John and I are very sorry to hear this news. Our thoughts go out to his family.”