On this day 27 years ago, Sunderland fans were given a glimmer of hope in what was a fairly bleak period following The Lads after relegation from Division One in 1990-91.
The first two years outside of the top flight had been miserable, especially in terms of our League form. Malcolm Crosby took over from Denis Smith during that first year in the second tier, and despite reaching the FA Cup final, Sunderland would end the season 18th and only five points above the relegation zone.
The following season it would get even worse, and it took a miracle to stop Sunderland dropping into the third tier for the second time in our history, during a season that saw Terry Butcher take over the reins from Crosby and we ended up finishing 21st and only one point above the relegation zone.
After having to rely on other results to keep us up on the last day of the season, Terry Butcher decided that an overhaul of the squad was required. During the summer he added Phil Gray, Alec Chamberlain, Andy Melville, Derek Ferguson and Ian Rodgerson to the ranks.
At this time, such a spending spree for Sunderland was certainly out of the ordinary, and there was optimism once again on Wearside for the season ahead; optimism that was boosted in pre-season, as Sunderland defeated Middlesbrough in a friendly at Ayresome Park 2-1.
This optimism, however, would soon be completely stamped out when all five of our new signings were involved in a car accident returning from that friendly on Teesside, and then to add insult to injury, we went down 5-0 to Derby County on the opening day of the season. Business as usual.
Fast forward to the tenth game of the season in October and, sitting in 17th place, we returned to Ayresome Park to take on Lennie Lawrence’s Middlesbrough.
On that cold Sunday afternoon – which marked the debut of new signing James ‘Jamie’ Lawrence – we returned back up the A19 having being defeated 4-1, and any hope of a successful season well and truly dashed.
We settled in for a dark, cold winter staring another relegation dogfight squarely in the face.
Three days later, we returned to Roker Park to face David Pleat’s Luton Town, and thanks to impressing during a practice game the day after our defeat at Middlesbrough, Martin Smith was thrown into the starting XI despite having never been involved in a previous matchday squad.
This call-up arrived a month ahead of the Sunderland-born left winger’s nineteenth birthday and he replaced Gordon Armstrong on the left of midfield. On the opposite flank it was also a first start for Lawrence as Terry Butcher rang the changes in a bid to turn Sunderland’s season around.
The gamble looked as if it was paying off when on twelve minutes Don Goodman opened the scoring to put Sunderland a goal up against a team who started the day on the same points and one place above Sunderland, having played a game more.
Then, on nineteen minutes, Sunderland were awarded a free kick just outside the box, and the moment arrived when the Roker Park faithful were introduced to a new local hero.
As Martin Smith explained it was probably a bit strange that a young player plucked from the youth team was given an opportunity to step up and take the free-kick on his full debut.
That tells you that it’s a team struggling for confidence when they let a young 19-year-old lad take free-kicks! I think it was more to do with the morning of the game we did the set-plays and I’d had two or three from exactly the same place. I think I scored them all and for whoever might have been on them it just wasn’t happening for them so it was basically just right “you’re on free kicks”!
Smith was still nervous however, and was purely concentrating on getting his strike on target:
I just remember just thinking hit it as hard as you can and it’s one of them that I think has grown a few legs down the years!
As the ball hit the back of the net the 13,760 in attendance at Roker Park that day realised we had a player on our hands as they witnessed an impressive performance in addition to the goal in a 2-0 victory for Terry Butcher’s side.
Smith would keep his place in the side for the following game as we claimed all three points at home to West Bromwich Albion, which was ahead of the visit of Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa for a League Cup 3rd round tie.
Against a Mark Bosnich-inspired Aston Villa, Sunderland would go down 4-1, but it was that night that Martin Smith announced himself against a higher level of opposition.
In front of 23,692, the now dubbed ‘Son of Pele’ gave Earl Barrett a torrid evening, so much so that it was revealed later that Ron Atkinson would place a bid of £1 million there and then.
Six years, 145 appearances and 28 goals later, Smith would leave Sunderland having lived the dream, and during those dark times in the early 1990s he returned hope to Sunderland fans until the good times finally returned.
Wednesday 20th October, 1993
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 2 - 0 Luton Town (Goodman 12’, Smith 19’)
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Owers, Ball, Melville, Gray, Lawrence (Russell), Ferguson (Sampson), Atkinson, Smith, Howey, Goodman Substitutes not used: Norman
Luton Town: Sommer, Linton, Peake, Dreyer, Johnson, Telfer, Hughes, Oakes, Rees, Hartson (Williams), Dickov (Campbell) Substitutes not used: Petterson