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Looking back at the Denis Smith era; Stability, shrewd transfer business & eventual success

Long before Chris Coleman ever arrived at the club, a valiant man name Denis rode into Wearside in order to steady a sinking ship - and the current gaffer could do a lot worse than look towards his predecessor for some inspiration as he bids to ward off the threat of relegation to the third tier for the first time since Smith was in charge.

Denis Smith

The last time Sunderland fell so far as to record both our lowest ever league position and the loss of the Sunderland supporting public was probably back in 1987.

Relegated under the watchful eye of Bob Stokoe, the legendary manager who had won the cup against all odds in 1973 - but more as a result of poor management by Lawrie McMenemy - Sunderland AFC found themselves in the third tier of English football for the first time ever.

It was truly a low-point. Not only had Stokoe tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to recover from the dark days of McMenemy, Sunderland went down due to the results of a play-off game against lower-league opposition in Gillingham. Having failed to grasp the second chance to avoid the drop, the club succumbed to life in the unknown.

Big decisions were made. McMenemy had signed experienced players, probably on big wages, and that simply hadn’t worked. Now the club had to regroup and recover - quickly.

The Board turned to Denis Smith, making him Sunderland’s new manager in May 1987.

Denis Smith welcomes Kevin Ball to the club
Sunderland AFC | Newcastle Evening Chronicle

In true Sunderland style, the compensation York City demanded for releasing Smith was by no means straight-forward.

York wanted £20,000 - Sunderland wanted to pay half that, so Smith accepted a contract that said he would be liable for the other half of the fee unless he won promotion in 1988.

Smith made a quick squad assessment, adding his former York City centre half John MacPhail and Sunderland-born right back John Kay to a backline that already contained now-Sunderland legend Gary Bennett.

He took a gamble and sold striker Mark Proctor to Sheffield Wednesday for £275,000 and used the proceeds to replace him with a young striker for £80,000 from his former team. Marco Gabbiadini entered the club at its lowest point and became one of the greatest strikers of its modern era.

Armed with his renewed squad, Smith made good on his commitment and avoided having to fork out £10,000 from his £40,000 a year salary by cementing an immediate promotion. Smith would go on to provide even greater achievement by lifting Sunderland to the brink of promotion to the top flight by beating Newcastle United in an epic play-off semi-final and setting up a final appearance against Swindon Town.

Despite losing that final, Sunderland benefited from Swindon’s off-field antics and were duly promoted.

Eric Gates
Gates was one of the players moved on by Smith in 1990
Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

That summer was an opportunity for Sunderland to grasp. Unfortunately, the Chairman at the time - Bob Murray - failed to back Smith, effectively only allowing him to replace the aging Eric Gates and John MacPhail with Peter Davenport and Kevin Ball.

Smith would later argue that Sunderland could have established themselves in time for the Premier League riches, if only Murray had given him the money to spend.

As it was, a roller-coaster season came down to the last game of the season. Away at Manchester City, Sunderland had one final game to save themselves - better Luton’s result against already relegated Derby, and we would survive.

Watched by over 10,000 travelling fans, goals from Marco Gabbiadini and Gary Bennett gave us hope. The second half saw the Lads desperately seeking the winner, but the defensive frailties that had marred our season came back to haunt us. A third goal for the home side meant final day defeat - courtesy of brace from one Niall Quinn - and relegation. We had quickly found ourselves back in the Second Division. Smith maintains the reason we went down was simply he didn’t have enough good players that year.

Big Quinny consigned us to an unfortunate relegation
Getty Images

Despite an offer from his hometown club Stoke City, Smith stayed with Sunderland. Murray had told Smith that he’d never sack him and so a rebuilding job began.

Unfortunately, Smith was once more given short shift and no funds were supplied.

However, Marco was on fire and Smith took the difficult decision to sell his prize asset to Crystal Palace for £1.8m. With the funds we collected he brought in Don Goodman as straight replacement. Goodman would go on to score 11 goals that season in 20 games. Using the rest of the generated funds, Smith added defender Anton Rogan and forward John Byrne.

Unfortunately, though, immediate results didn’t pick up. Smith took a risk in changing his backroom staff, promoting Malcom Crosby over his long-time assistant, Viv Busby.

Things turned sour off the field and didn’t improve on it.

On 30th December 1991, Bob Murray made the call he promised he’d never make and Smith was sacked. Yet the foundations he laid by signing the likes of John Byrne, Kevin Ball, Peter Davenport, Anton Rogan and Paul Bracewell ensured his Sunderland team made it to Wembley under the caretaker management of Crosby for the 1992 FA Cup Final.

enis Smith manager of Oxford United
Denis Smith was a shrewd capture at a time when the club needed stability

Smith emerged at a time when the club needed to be galvanised, reformed, even rebuilt. His achievements were quite astounding in the four and half years he managed Sunderland AFC - an Immediate promotion and even greater subsequent promotion to the First Division were perhaps the highlights.

The St James’ Park play-off game will live long in the memories of fans and a certain Paul Hardyman. Smith generally had a good eye for what was needed and made some astute signings that brought the club back to life.

For many, Smith went too early. Would he have made the run to Wembley? Who knows. Would he have got us back up eventually? Probably.

But here we find ourselves again, a club in crisis, devoid of a character to call our own and at a low-point; looking for something or someone to rebuild us, reconnect us fans with our club, and restore some pride.

Enter Chris Coleman - a man who, it appears, won’t suffer fools, knows his own mind and wants to restore a once great club - just like Smith before him.

Coleman may not have a quarter of this year’s salary riding on us, but his reputation certainly is now firmly planted in the center circle of the Stadium of Light for all to see.

If he can get anywhere near rebuilding a club to rival the one the Fulwell End bellowed out as “Denis Smith’s Red and White Army!” we’ll be OK. Good luck, gaffer!