On this day in 1989, Ricardo Gabbiadini made his one and only appearance for Sunderland’s first team, coming on as sub for his more illustrious brother as the lads went down 2-0 to Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United at Elland Road.
After a period of consolidation in 1988-89, the following season had gotten off to a good start, with five wins, four draws and a solitary defeat in the opening ten games leaving Denis Smith’s side in second place as we headed down the A1.
Leeds, with Sergeant Wilko in charge for his first full season, had strengthened their side considerably for a promotion charge; the likes of Gordon Strachan, Mel Sterland, Vinny Jones had been added to a squad that already included Gary Speed, Bobby Davidson, Ian Baird and keeper Mervyn Day.
In a game that wasn’t for those faint of heart, Sunderland went down 2-0 first half goals from Bobby Davidson and Chris Fairclough sealing the win.
From a Sunderland perspective, a curiosity to note was that, in the second half, Marco Gabbiadini was replaced by his brother Ricardo, who’d signed from York during the summer of 1988 for £5,000.
Known to Smith from his York days, Ricardo had scored 37 goals the season before, 20 at youth level and 17 in the Central League.
“It’s a gamble because everyone will be comparing him to Marco, which won’t really be fair,” said Smith.
Despite appearances, this wasn’t a signing to keep Marco sweet – Ricardo was highly thought of, and turned down moved from Leeds and Doncaster in favour of joining his brother at Sunderland.
“I saw more of Sunderland last year than I did of York, with coming up to see Marco, and I know all about Denis and Viv [Busby] because they gave me my first break,” said Gabbiadini jnr. “I played one youth game with Marco at York and my ambition is for us to team up again.”
An early opportunity to team up came, remarkably, in an under-20 tournament in Yugoslavia.
After the 88-89 season had drawn to a close, Marco had headed off to represent England under-20s, came back and was immediately sent to Yugoslavia with the Sunderland under-20 side. Gary Owers, who’d also been named in the squad, missed out through injury.
In today’s footballing terms, the prospect of your star striker playing in a – in the grand scheme of things – meaningless under-20 pre-season tournament overseas is mind beggars belief.
The two Gabbiadinis were on the scoresheet in a 4-3 victory over Partizan Belgrade, which left the team finishing third in a group of four.
Ricardo spent the next season in the youth and reserve teams, and had to wait over a year to be paired with his brother at first-team level, that opportunity coming in a pre-season friendly defeat to Darlington at Feethams, Ricardo coming on for Eric Gates with 20 minutes left as Sunderland attempted – and failed – to save face, going down 1-0 to the team which had been relegated from the league the season before.
Partly due to the team’s bright start to the season, and the option of only being able to select two subs, Ricardo didn’t get a look in in the season’s opening weeks. He was sent to Blackpool on loan to gain some experience.
“Ricky has developed more slowly than Marco but he could end up a better player,” said Smith.
“I had my doubts about him last year but he has done very well this season, and will be even better for some league experience.”
Ricardo netted three in five games for Blackpool and came back to Roker to earn a place on the bench for the clash at Leeds.
That game, as you’ll no doubt remember, was his one and only appearance for the club at senior level, and he departed the club only a few months later – spells at Grimsby, Brighton, Crewe, Hartlepool, Scarborough and Carlisle followed, and by 1992, aged only 22, he’d kicked his last ball in professional football in England – playing 58 league games and scoring 10 goals.
And not one of those games, as it turned out, would be alongside his brother.