After beginning our first-ever spell of third-tier football in the best possible way by remaining unbeaten throughout August, and subsequently topping the Third Division table at the conclusion of the first month of the season, September proved to be a bit less productive. It began with three consecutive draws, firstly at another of the promotion favourites Walsall, against Bury at Roker, then at our play-off conquerors of the previous season, Gillingham. We then tasted defeat for the first time on the road to one of our relegation counterparts, Brighton, then suffered back-to-back defeats, at the same time losing our unbeaten home league record when Chester City inflicted upon us a rather embarrassing 0-2 reverse on their first-ever visit to Roker Park the following week.
The Chester game however, while disappointing results wise, was still rather significant in that it marked the debut of a young striker who’d recently been brought to the club by Denis Smith from his former club York. His name? Marco Gabbiadini, and he’d go on to write himself into Sunderland AFC folklore with his goal scoring exploits for us. While he failed to get off the mark against Chester, in the next game at Fulham Marco netted twice in our 2-0 win to give us all a taste of what was to come, proving that his signing had been something of a masterstroke as we sought to escape the clutches of the Third Division. Aldershot would be the next side to experience first-hand our new striker’s undoubted prowess in his second home outing for us.
As had been the case with Chester the previous week, Aldershot’s visit to Roker Park was another groundbreaking league meeting, in that it was the first time ever that we’d encountered The Shots as they are also known, and was a direct result of our relegation/the Hampshire side’s promotion from the Fourth Division via the play-offs at the end of the previous season. So on a sunny day in early October, attacking the Fulwell End, we began brightly and could well have taken a second-minute lead. Eric Gates played a neat pass to set Gary Owers free, but the youngster failed to get any power behind his shot and Aldershot ‘keeper David Coles saved comfortably.
John McPhail then failed to get any power and direction into a header following a free-kick for a foul on Eric Gates. Undeterred, we kept up the pressure and Gary Owers was just off-target with a powerful drive, then when the visitors threatened on the counter John McPhail had to come to our rescue with two rather timely interventions.
Despite this it was we who continued to hold the upper hand, and after Paul Lemon had had a shot deflected wide the resulting corner, headed on by Gary Bennett, caused a fair amount of anxiety in the visitor’s defence before the ball was rather hastily cleared. Paul Atkinson then hit a twenty-yard effort just too high, a shot from Paul Lemon almost deceived David Coles, who then saved a header from Marco Gabbiadini. Lemon and Owers then both missed good chances as our relentless pressure continued, then when Gabbiadini took the ball round Coles after the ‘keeper had lost out in a battle for possession, the young striker’s centre was blocked behind for a corner and when the kick reached Steve Doyle, his thundering drive was just off-target.
It was no doubt rather frustrating for both players and fans alike, what with our more or less non-stop pressure and possession failing to bring an end product, but in the twenty-eighth minute we finally got our due reward, for when Marco Gabbiadini was halted by Colin Smith at the expense of a corner and Atkinson’s second ball in picked out John McPhail, who powered home a header.
The one-way traffic continued unchecked, and Gary Owers came close with a powerful twenty-yard effort, then shortly afterwards Paul Atkinson was just off-target with a curling effort, following the award of a free kick for a foul on Marco Gabbiadini, but the visitors missed a great chance to draw level in the forty-first minute when a mistake by Paul Atkinson presented the chance for ex-West Ham forward Bobby Barnes to bear down on our goal - thankfully Iain Hesford was alert to the situation and managed to clear the danger.
However, it seemed that we failed to heed the warning signs, for right on half-time, and completely against the run of play, Aldershot drew level when Bobby Barnes atoned for his earlier miss. Glenn Burvill and Ian Phillips combined well, and the latter’s crossed eluded our defence and picked out Barnes, who headed home at the far post.
1-1 then at the break - a travesty of justice given our first-half domination - but we need not have worried. In fact, just after the break we almost restored our lead when Marco Gabbiadini’s pace left an Aldershot defender trailing in his wake, but the young striker’s cross just eluded the onrushing Gary Owers. We maintained the pressure though and were rewarded on the hour mark, when Paul Lemon’s centre from the left picked out Gabbiadini, whose bullet-like header left David Coles helpless.
Eric Gates then headed over the bar before two corners proved fruitless, as our non-stop onslaught continued. We then seemed to lose our way a little, and this seemed to offer Aldershot encouragement that they may just find a way back into the game, though thankfully their efforts came to nothing. Then in the seventy-seventh minute we should have gone further in front following a defensive slip on the pass of Aldershot, but after Eric Gates burst clear, he fired over the bar.
We weren’t to be denied; just three minutes later we put the result beyond doubt. A low drive from John Kay was blocked, but Marco Gabbiadini was quickest to react, and he calmly sidestepped David Coles before tapping the ball home for his second goal of the game, much to the delight of his team-mates and the home crowd alike. Marco nearly grabbed his hat-trick shortly afterwards, but while his fierce drive beat Coles, it was also a fraction too high.
So we returned to winning ways at Roker and to be honest 3-1 really flattered Aldershot, who were no doubt relieved not to have been on the receiving end of a bigger beating, such had been our dominance of proceedings. It was also of course a personal triumph for our latest find Marco Gabbiadini, what with his second brace in as many league games. There would be more to come from our young striker, helped in no small way by his subsequent partnership with Eric Gates, one that would prove to be the scourge of many a defence, in the Third Division and beyond.