RR: First and foremost Don, thanks for sitting down for a chat with Roker Report. Nice easy one to begin with - you played with some decent centre forwards whilst Sunderland, but who was your favourite strike partner?
DG: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to answer and maybe unfair to pick between John Byrne and Phil Gray. I struck up a good relationship with both of them so I couldn’t pick between the two of them.
They both had an eye for goal, both great players, both worked well with me so it would be too hard to say, I think. I’ll just name them both.
RR: Let’s go back to 1991. Sunderland have won just four matches in our opening fourteen games, Marco Gabbiadini is sold to Palace and a few months later you walk in the door. What did Denis Smith say to convince you Roker was the right place?
DG: Well it was a combination of it being Denis Smith and it being Sunderland AFC, with the added belief that, for me, Sunderland were going to be the vehicle that would get me to the Premier League.
I honestly bought into the club, as well as Denis Smith - but he unfortunately didn’t last long after he bought me, which is remarkable really when you think about it - the board allowed him to almost double the double the transfer record then a few weeks later relieve him of his duties, which was disappointing from my perspective.
Sunderland weren’t long out of the top flight, I was scoring a lot of goals from West Brom but it wasn’t quite enough as I had a fairly injury plagued season - so I played about sixteen games and managed to score eight goals for them but they still got relegated to what is now League One.
There were a few clubs sniffing around, Sunderland being one of them, so I drove up, listened to what Denis had to say and, if I’m honest, it was an easy choice in the end - a no brainer.
I’d been to Roker Park before as an opposing player and it was a lovely atmosphere even though it was against me at the time and I just thought “I’d love to play for these fans” and move the club forward.
RR: Talk about pressure - not only were you filling big boots in Marco, but you also became our record signing. Did you feel any pressure, or were you more excited?
DG: I never really gave it a second thought, to be quite frank. I was confident that I would score goals and more than that, I was confident I would give everything I can to those fans and the club. I knew I would sweat blood for them. I’d give my all and I know from experience if you do that, and they can see you’re giving your all, football fans accept you.
I know replacing Gabbers was not an easy task, he was a brilliant player, a cult hero at Sunderland - but for me, it wasn’t an issue at all. I didn’t give it a second thought because I have faith in my own ability to give my all and to score goals, ultimately.
RR: Your debut was away at Wolves, but you had a dream Roker Park debut scoring against Leicester City in the last minute. Is there a better way to experience Roker Park than that?
DG: Correct! I did.
I made my debut against Wolves away at Molineux and got dogs abuse off the Wolves fans for my West Brom connections, but my overriding memory of the whole day is being down to nine men within about ten minutes! Gordon Armstrong and John Byrne both got sent off and we hung on until the last minute of the game then Paul Cook, the current Wigan manager, smashes one in from thirty yards! (laughs).
The benefit of that was the travelling fans got to see how good I was in the air (laughs). The instruction was to win all the headers from Tony Norman’s big kicks and try and make sure I kept it up there or head to touch!
The Leicester game was a little bit frustrating, we hadn’t managed to break them down until I got that chance. I remember Paul Bracewell launched a high, hopeful ball into the area and I got a good connection. It was a looping header that went over the ‘keeper and under the bar from quite a long way out.
It was brilliant way to make you’re home debut and hopefully gave the fans a taste of what the club have bought.
RR: We mentioned it before, but only four games into your Sunderland career and we lose at Oxford and Denis Smith is sacked. How disappointed were you that he’d went so quickly after he brought you in?
DG: Massively disappointed because I performed well for him in such a short space of time. I formed a great bond with him quickly.
You can ask him this, but a few days after he’d been sacked me, John Byrne and Anton Rogan took him out because he brought the three of us in and we all had such admiration and respect for him and were gutted he wasn’t given more time.
The four of us ended up pretty rat arsed to be fair. It was a nice afternoon session in Durham - but that just highlights what we all thought of Denis. We just wanted to show him how grateful we were to him for bringing us to the club.
RR: Malcolm Crosby was Smith’s assistant at SAFC and so often when the deputy comes in, it doesn’t change much, but he managed to keep us in the division and go on a magical FA Cup run. What did he change to improve the performances?
DG: He didn’t change a lot to be honest. I can’t honestly recall much change at all. He was part of the backroom team with Denis so probably shared a similar ideology as him.
What I will say about Malcolm Crosby is that he’s one of the most likable, honest men you’re ever likely to come across in football. The players responded to that.
We were all disappointed we’d lost Denis, but we didn’t want to let Crozza down either. It’s one of those things in football isn’t it - a manager goes and for no real reason results suddenly improve.
RR: You were so unlucky in that you couldn’t experience the FA Cup run as a player due to be cup-tied. How disappointed were you not just to miss out on the Wembley final, but also games like Chelsea at Roker?
DG: I’d played in Round One for West Brom against Marlow and we beat them 6-0 - little did I know how significant that would be at the time.
To be honest though, I embraced that cup run. Missing out wasn’t a problem at all and at every single stage I traveled with the Lads, I supported them, I celebrated with them and I drank copious amounts of beer with the Lads in celebration. I was a bit of a cheerleader.
The only time I felt a little bit sorry for myself was at Hillsborough. When I came out just before the players were gathering in the tunnel, I looked to my right and that sea of red and white shirts, the noise coming from that bank of fans and I did have a little feeling of “this is what you missed out on” and I felt sorry for myself for a moment.
But we beat Norwich, it was amazing and then we got to Wembley. I did the pen pics for TV, where I could rip into the Lads and take the pee a little bit!
I did everything you could do as a player, went out and warmed up, got a cup final suit - everything bar playing. I embraced all of it.
It was just a shame we couldn’t manage to win and get past what was a very good Liverpool side.
RR: Indeed it was, it was a great run.
DG: I must say something on that though, if I can...
RR: Go ahead...
DG: When we came back the next day from final, most of the Lads hadn’t even been to sleep, we drank all the way up the motorway and spent most of it taking the mickey out of Paul Bracewell as I recall because I think he’d played in a few cup finals and lost them all.
Anyway we hit the outskirts of Sunderland and there it was - the homecoming.
The FA Cup final runners-up. They can not possibly have been a bigger turn out for a losing team. We were all absolutely blown away. There was anywhere between 350k and half a million people on the streets for a team that lost.
That’s my big cup final memory. There’s no regrets. I enjoyed the whole thing. Heroes being made - Johnny Byrne scoring in every round, Gordon Armstrong’s diving header, David Rush at West Ham. Magical moments and they were my team mates.
I was so proud of them.
RR: You managed to put that disappointment behind you though and became our player of the year in 92/93. How much did you enjoy that season on a personal level?
DG: I enjoyed the season before to be honest. I finished top scorer with about eleven goals I think. It was a great start to a new club. The fans took to me instantly as well.
I just carried that form into the new season. It was just about striving to be the best you can be. What stands out for me is that I was there for exactly three years and whilst we didn’t have the success I’d hoped for as a team, the fans were always a constant. The sheer support I had from the fans - they were remarkable to me. From day one they got right behind me.
I loved scoring for them, as much as myself to be honest with you. It was a brilliant three years and I talk about it till this day. Until you’ve played up there and been embroiled in Sunderland AFC you don’t get how passionate they are.
Every club has passionate fans, but up in Sunderland it’s another level. Until you’re immersed in it, it’s hard to describe to other people.
I will always have a place in my heart for Sunderland, and in particular the fans for the support they gave me. I still have a ‘Big Bad Don’ t-shirt from A Love Supreme!