It wasn’t all plain sailing at the beginning of our first season in the third tier of English football 33 years ago.
Denis Smith had arrived from York City after caretaker manager Bob Stokoe had failed to keep Sunderland in Division Two. The ex-Stoke City defender quickly realised he had a rebuilding job on his hands, and started at the back, with the signings of John Kay and John MacPhail.
However, the first nine games of the season didn’t go to plan. After three wins and two defeats, Sunderland sat 9th in Division Three.
For the majority of the games up to this point Denis Smith had opted for Eric Gates to partner Keith Bertschin up top. On paper, two players with huge quality, especially at that level.
Bertschin and Gates ended their careers with a record of around a goal every four games and arguably focused their game on providing opportunities for others, rather than being the main goalscorer of the team.
The new Sunderland manager quickly realised the issue that although he had the talent up-front he needed an option to complement it – and that option came in the form of a 19-year-old striker at York City by the name of Marco Gabbiadini.
Signed on the 23rd September 1987 for a bargain £80,000, Gabbiadini was immediately thrown into the starting XI three days later for the visit of Chester City to Roker Park. This presented the manager with a dilemma who would get the nod to partner the teenager up front and, as Gabbiadini lined up for his debut, he was partnered by Keith Bertschin.
It wasn’t to be a fairytale start for the teenager however, as Sunderland went down to a 2-0 defeat that left the club mid-table without a win in five games ahead of a trip to the capital to face Ray Lewington’s Fulham.
Again, Bertschin was the man to partner Marco, and this time it got off to an explosive start with the new signing getting off the mark with his first goal for the club after 47 seconds.
With Sunderland still leading by a goal to nil approaching half-time, 31-year-old Bertschin was forced off by a combination of a facial injury and a hamstring problem, replaced by young striker John Moore. Sunderland went on to win the game 2-0, Marco getting his brace in the last minute of the game.
The news post-match was that Bertschin would be would ruled out for at least a couple of weeks due to the injuries, and this provided an opportunity for Eric Gates to prove he was the man to partner Gabbiadini up front.
The ex-England international wasted no time. Sunderland won the next two games against Aldershot and Wigan Athletic, and in doing so, the new partnership knocked in six goals.
After seeing a specialist, on this day 33 years ago ahead of facing Wigan Athletic at Roker Park, it was confirmed Bertschin would be ruled out for another few weeks. He did not return to the match-day squad until early November.
Sunderland didn’t look back. Keith Bertschin only started four more games for the club, departing for Walsall at the end of the season. He did, of course, return to the club over 20 years later as part of Martin O’Neill’s coaching staff.
We’ll never know if the Bertschin/Gabbiadini partnership would have taken off as well as the the Gates/Gabbiadini one did, but it would have taken some beating – from that mid-table Division Three position of September 1987, we were back in the top flight less than three years later. Thanks, in huge part, to the G-Force.