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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... the last man to lead Sunderland in the third tier, Denis Smith!

If Jack Ross has the successful campaign we’re all hoping for by guiding the Lads back to English football’s second division, he’ll become the second Sunderland manager to do so. The first of course was none other than Denis Smith, who joined us very recently to chat about his eventful tenure.

Denis Smith

RR: Thanks for taking time out of your day to chat with us, Denis. It’s a real pleasure to be able to sit down with you.

DS: No problem. I’ve been away for three weeks, so it’s nice to be back. Arrived home last night, so just catching up now.

RR: It’s strange that we’re talking now, at a time when the club are facing the same issues you walked into.

DS: Yeah, it’s quite incredible. There’s a few similarities, too.

I was 40. You’ve got a young lad there now as manager. And Stewart, who’s a driving force, although a lot more vocal than Bob [Murray] ever was.

I’ll be delighted if they can achieve what we did. I love the people up there. I had a great time there.

Denis Smith arrived at Roker Park in 1987
Image: Daily Telegraph

RR: How was it when you took over?

DS: When I arrived the people around the place were just deflated. Everyone from the cleaning lady up were like ‘oooh, we’re going to go down again; the players are hopeless; everything’s hopeless.’

But for me I was ‘hold on a minute, turn it round. You’ve got a magnificent stadium...’

Roker Park was a magnificent stadium and they’d got some good players there, who weren’t performing, obviously, but there were some good players there.

OK, it needed changing and building on, and cleaning out, but there were still some very good players; people who could control it and pass it to one another; y’know, you didn’t need to go through the basics with a lot of them, so that helped.

And you’ve got that support. Amazing support. It was a joy to be there – how can you not want to be involved with a club like that?

RR: It was a personal gamble for you to come - it could have cost you a quarter of your salary that year! But you seemed confident we’d get promoted straight away.

DS: Well, I thought the first thing was ‘don’t get ahead of yourself’. Let’s get out of this division. Now, you’re Sunderland – you should get out. How can you not believe you can’t get out? If the manager doesn’t believe…

I put my salary on the line for it. My wife was not impressed! I was desperate to be there. There are very few people, football people, who would turn Sunderland Association Football Club down.

RR: Do you think that’s the same now, or have we lost some of that appeal?

DS: If you read the media, perhaps, and if you look at the results and wonder what the hell is going on, but you then look at it as a club and an area where football is the be-all and end-all.

Y’know, the fans are untrue - how many season tickets have you sold this year?! And the facilities – how can you not want to be involved with that club?

RR: The fans warmed to you quickly - you always seemed to have a strong relationship with us.

DS: Absolutely. But when you have 20,000, 25,000, even 30,000 turning up for home games in the third division against the likes of Rotherham, Doncaster, Preston, Chesterfield and Northampton, it tells you how much the club means to them. You can’t help but use that energy and get the players to use it too.

The fans played a huge part in the play-off games against Newcastle. Over 25,000 at Roker and we had tremendous backing at St James when we beat them. And then they forked out again for the trip to Wembley. Over 70,000 watched that game against Swindon.

By the time we got to the First Division - well, taking 8,000 to Derby and 12,000 Sunderland fans at Man City! We had amazing support throughout my time there.

It helps when the crowd are with you. Hearing them chant your name. Any player loves it. But they chanted for me, the manager!

RR: Jack faces the same challenges as you, really. An underperforming, over-paid squad which needed a clear-out. Was it a case, for you, of identifying key roles - like a new striker - to strengthen the side?

DS: Marco was an easy one because I’d brought him into the side at York, but I didn’t know if that was what we needed or who he’d go with. You see, Gatesy wasn’t playing, but when I got talking to him and working with him I went ‘wow!’ He wasn’t even in the side. What a player this is. I knew about Eric Gates, but I thought his legs must have gone, all the things you read in the paper, but you start watching him in training and you go ‘oooh’.

I pulled him to one side and said ‘look, what’s the problem?’

‘They’re playing long balls into the channels and high balls and it’s not my game.’

So I said, ‘what will you do if I get it into your feet?’ and he said ‘I’ll destroy teams!’ ‘We’ll get it into your feet then!’

Gabbers had a spell where he thought I’ll come short and, like other good players, receive it, but I said ‘no, you sit on the shoulder, between the centre half and the full back, and you run that way. You run that way and he’ll find you every time. You’ll make yourself a superstar by scoring goals.’ It’s not rocket science!

I’d had John Byrne and Keith Walwyn before. John was the one to get in those holes and Keith was big, strong, quick and could run the other way. So at York I had that combination and I think it’s a good combination because you need people to run in behind to stretch and create the space for the people who come short.

It’s getting the balance right and obviously having the brains to be able to do it. And you still have to have the people who can pass it to them.

Marco Gabbiadini was signed by Smith for £80,000
Getty Images

RR: It wasn’t just in attack, though - you built from the back too.

DS: You need to be solid; you need good defenders. I went back for John MacPhail, who I’d had at York, and I had Frank Gray at the club already. Frank played sweeper for me a few times when we played five at the back. He’d just pull the ball out of the air.

I’d also inherited George Burley, who was an attacking full-back, but he went out so I could bring a defender in. So I went out and signed John Kay.

Kaysie was originally at Arsenal but he had wanted to move North - so he joined Wimbledon!

He’d been at Wimbledon with that mentality and winning attitude, but he had been brought up at Arsenal, so the lad could play. Mind, he was a lunatic - and still is!

RR: And, like Jack again, you seemed keen to develop the youth players?

DS: Yeah, we had the likes of Armstrong and Owers.

Gordon had played a couple of games and gave us balance and power on the left-hand side. Owersy, I just saw him and thought ‘wow!’ That sheer amount of energy was just frightening. He just never stopped, like one of those wind-up batteries.

I wanted to help people develop; to enjoy playing football. We all started playing as kids because we enjoyed it – when you play just as a job, don’t come to me, because I want to see a smile on your face and I want to see you enjoy it.

RR: Changing personnel is one thing, but you laid foundations in that season that propelled us further than simply getting out at the first attempt.

DS: Once you get that negativity changed round to positivity – and it looks like the fans are turning up, being positive and looking forward to next season – that’s great. So what you have to do is turn that out on the pitch. Tell the players we’re going to be the biggest club in the league, everyone will want to come and turn us over – we have to disappoint them!

That attitude gave us the platform to improve year on year.

And having a good backroom is a massive help. You have to bring the right people with you – the Viv Busby’s, the Malcolm Crosby’s, the Roger Jones’.

And when we got into the Second Division the mentality was the same: keep the ball rolling; let’s keep going. We stuck by a number of players; always tweaking, of course, but if the best part is still there, don’t take it apart.

Denis Smith celebrates clinching promotion from the Third Division at Port Vale in 1988
Image: Sunderland Echo

RR: The ball did keep rolling, all the way to Wembley in the Play-Off Final. Even though we lost, there we were, promoted due to Swindon’s shenanigans!

DS: On the day, it just wasn’t our game. They clattered Gabbers and maybe the occasion was too much, I don’t know, but we didn’t perform.

But that was a totally weird summer. We had no chance to build. We weren’t building for the top league, we were building for the second tier.

Mind, we thought there was something when you looked at the players they’d got. They had players I’d been interested in but couldn’t afford and you thought ‘how are Swindon able to afford them?’ We knew there was something but I was amazed when it happened.

RR: When you got the club into the First Division you changed a few older heads.

DS: Yeah, John MacPhail and Gatesy went and - looking back - perhaps that was a mistake.

I replaced Gatesy with Davenport, but Peter failed, to be honest. He looked right and is a lovely lad, a good bloke, but Gatesy was better and John Byrne was better.

I got it right the second time when I got John Byrne. I was going for Byrney before Davenport but this agent thing happened. I sat down with his agent and said yes, but the next thing I know he’s signed for some team in France.

I asked John ‘what’s gone on?’ and he said ‘well, my never agent never said you wanted me.’ I think we both regretted that.

RR: You once said we just lacked a little bit of quality, but the spirit was there and we nearly stayed up because of the team spirit.

DS: Yeah, we were very close! You need everybody working together. The fans were chanting for me when we lost 3-2 at Man City, when normally they want your head.

It did just come down to that bit of quality. For example, there’s Benno. He’s my centre-half. We’re 2-0 up at Tottenham and he’s crossing the ball from the right wing. I’m like… ‘What are you doing?!’ And that’s after I’d trained him! He was a nightmare when I first came. I wouldn’t play him at centre half. I played him right back.

We just didn’t have enough, but we had some great players. Bally came in, Brace came in - good players, big players.

I’d played with Brace at Stoke – a winner – day in day out. He’s a class act as a player and if he’s as singled minded as a coach he’ll be OK. Brace made the game look easy. He was never a ‘fans favourite’ type, but he kept winning it and giving it to a team-mate. People think that’s easy, but it really isn’t.

You need characters. You’ll have come across Bally yourself!

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

RR: Was it just down to finance, do you think? You got on well with Bob Murray though?

DS: He’s hard work at times to get where you are with him, but for me I’ve come in and I’ve got somebody who I could go to. I could say ‘Look, I wanna do this: yes or no?’ and I got an answer, and he was brilliant for that. We didn’t always agree, but he could take that as well.

He wanted a new stadium, I wanted a new team. Looking at the stadium, he was possibly right.

That’s just how I felt when I came in. He was a young fella, ambitious, loves the club, a Sunderland-man, wanted to do well for the club and the area. I knew he was on my side. At times, he’d think like a fan not a chairman, but Bob gave me the best job of my managerial career.

Sunderland have had their spells up there. Bob - you can’t criticise him for what’s done for the club and when Reidy came in and McCarthy came in...

Would I criticise Bob Murray? No. But was I happy when I left? No.

RR: You could have left the year we came down, I understand?

DS: I could have moved and I’d have been rich now.

Peter Coates and I have a history together and he made me a great offer. I turned it down - my wife was right that going there and, sooner or later, getting the sack would have changed it for me. But I still go down there to see Peter in the boardoom.

RR: There were a few changes when we came back down. Like Viv...

DS: Things with Viv are fine. Fine. Viv lives in Spain now, but I saw him at Howard Kendall’s funeral.

Everyone seems to think... there were a couple of things that went on between Viv and the Chairman. Me and Viv – it was always a working relationship anyway. He was the polar-opposite to me – he had a sense of humour and put his arm around people.

But I brought Malcolm in and he had his qualifications. Viv didn’t have his qualifications. Bob wanted Viv to go get them, but Viv didn’t want to go. Crossa had got all his, so I put him up alongside Viv to help close that gap.

Viv was a good coach. Everyone seems to think you need a bit of paper, but when I got all my qualifications there were people there that I wouldn’t let manage my dog!

RR: And you had to change the team a bit, too. You eventually got John Byrne, but you had to sell Marco to get him. That must have been a tough one.

DS: With him [Marco] being the Chairman’s favourite, it would have been sensible to have kept him. Probably not the most sensible one to sell!

In an ideal world, you don’t sell your goalscorers, but we needed money. I got a few in as a result. Don had pace and Byrney was a class player.

Only problem was, I left before he played for me!

Smith finally got John Byrne to the club
Getty Images

RR: I have often wondered what you made of the team you left behind and that cup-run. After all, you’d put it together.

DS: Well, when the FA cup final was on I was out of the country! I didn’t want the media phoning me up and taking things off Crossa. He’d phone me up every week and we’d have chats about it. We’re still in touch now.

Problem was he [Byrne] kept scoring which kept Crossa at the club! Crossa was coming with me to Bristol – it was all arranged. But Byrney kept scoring and they kept winning. So I had two of them, an ex-player and ex-assistant, stitching me up!

Yeah, Malcolm was coming with me. Malcolm knows his job is better as a no.2. He’s a class act. Don’t tell him I told you!

It was the cup run that kept him there. He loves it. He has the big photo up in his entrance hall. I think he only puts it up when I go! Just as I’m walking through the door, there he is walking out at Wembley.

RR: So, best signing for Sunderland? Or shall I just put Byrnie?

DS: John Byrne was class. I had John at York, Sunderland, and then again at Oxford. Bally did a great job. John MacPhail – 17 goals as a centre-half. Tell me who gets that many as a centre-half? Brace did a great job, too.

RR: And worst?

DS: I signed a winger from Preston - Brian Mooney. I can remember going to a talk-in – managers used to go to pubs and do talk-ins with the fans! And I remember these lads having a go about Mooney.

I said ‘hang on, hang on, let’s calm this down. Anyone who thinks Brian Mooney was a bad signing, put their hands up’ and I stuck mine in the air straight-away!

RR: Anyone 'difficult' to manage?

DS: [laughing] Benno!

RR: How about characters - you had a few!

DS: Oh yeah. Bally, Benno, MacPhail, Kaysie. All good lads. Eric was great, and the young lads. Thomas Hauser - He didn’t achieve what he would have expected nor I. But I thank him for getting me into Weiss Bier! Every time I drink Weiss Bier I think of Thomas Hauser!

RR: How about biggest talent?

DS: Kieron [Brady] was class. Should have been up there with the greats.

He played his first game and he was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

He was a young lad and still in the hostel. Crossa was in charge of the hostel and Kieron asked if he could go out with his mate, who’d come down from Scotland. I said yeah, as long as you’re back by twelve, cos we got a game on Tuesday.

Three o’clock he got in, or it might have been four! And there’s Crossa, waiting for him!

So, obviously, he’s not playing Tuesday and I get absolutely slaughtered by the fans, the press, everyone. And I’m going ‘well, he’s a young lad and we need to look after him…’ doing everything to protect him.

RR: Finally, any highlights we’ve not touched on?

DS: Beating Newcastle! Without a doubt.

As Sunderland manager, beating Newcastle in the play-offs has to be the one! I enjoyed the promotions but that game will live forever and stay in my memory.

Try to explain what football is all about to anyone outside the North-East and – well, I say, if you want to manage England go manage Newcastle or Sunderland first and get a feel for what football really is about!