History’s a cruel mistress on occasion. As the years go on, events, achievements and failures are increasingly judged by the context of what followed, rather than in isolation.
Take what was, until three seasons ago, the only Third Division campaign in our club’s history. In 1987, for the first time in the club’s 108-year-history, we were relegated to the third tier.
After the disastrous Lawrie McMenemy did a high-speed, midnight flit in his luxury club car, the image of Roker Park burning down – metaphorically at least – in his rear view mirror, it needed someone special to bring about a new dawn for the club.
And that man – born 73 years ago today in Stoke-on-Trent, was Denis Smith.
It’s only in the past couple of seasons that I’ve come to truly appreciate the job Smith did – and how, in reality, he’s the embodiment of a perfect Sunderland manager.
When 39-year-old Smith strode through the doors at Roker Park a mere eleven days after that Gillingham game, he walked into a club on its knees.
A raft of players who didn’t want to be there; an inexperienced chairman with short arms, deep pockets and his own boardroom battles to face, and a fan base that, only two years ago was lining Wembley way in the hope – expectation – of major silverware.
When we fall, we fall.
The population of Lawrie McMenemy’s Home For Ageing Football Players™ needed to be culled or reinvigorated.
Whatever had worked at Southampton hadn’t worked at Sunderland, and Smith – who’d staked his own money on getting Sunderland up at the first attempt when joining from York – acted decisively.
The likes of Alan Kennedy, Steve Hetzke all departed Dave Swindlehurst, while Smith was only able to bring in two defenders, John Kay and John MacPhail – Kay, a north easterner who’d been part of the Crazy Gang’s rise up the leagues; MacPhail a trusted lieutenant Smith had managed at Bootham Crescent.
In addition to the two new permanent signings, the team that lined up against Brentford on the opening day of the campaign included two other debutants. Keeper Steve Hardwick had joined on loan to replace the injured Hesford, while youngster Gary Owers was included in the first team for the first time.
It was another youngster, however, who proved pivotal in Smith’s success at Sunderland – Marco Gabbiadini, of course. The 19-year-old, who’s signing was funded by the sale of Mark Proctor to Sheffield Wednesday, made all of the difference.
Smith’s introduction of Gabbiadini and Owers, and the continued use of Armstrong and Lemon, gave the team a good element of youth – all players who were 21 or under.
Impressively, though, Smith got the likes of Eric Gates and Frank Gray – international players who’d played the vast majority of their careers in the top flight – onside. Only George Burley was consigned to the stiffs – primarily due to Kay’s excellent form.
After a slow start to the season we won the league at a canter. It looked easy. Maybe it was. It was fun. We enjoyed it. Yes, we didn’t want to be in that league and yes, it was an unwanted blemish on our history, but – for a season – it certainly beat getting whacked in Division Two every week.
Smith followed that championship win up by promotion to the top flight just two seasons later – the focus on youth was evident. In the ‘89-90 season, by this time of the year, we’d used 10 players aged 21 or younger in the team – and this was at a time when only two subs were permitted.
And for the 25 or so years that followed, we had an assumption that that was what Sunderland did in Division Three. We enjoyed it, we had a breather, and got out.
Sadly, history hasn’t repeated itself.
Of course, Smith made mistakes. He certainly didn’t pander to the crowd, in reality he was critical on a number of occasions, particularly around attendances in the later ‘80s, but by then he’d earned the right to do that.
His departure was, in hindsight, hasty - however Smith was undoubtedly feeling the heat. It’s certainly one of those that, with the benefit of history, we should have ridden out.
After all, Smith was loyal – turning down the manager’s job at Stoke, where he’d spent the vast majority of his playing days as a tough-as-nails centre half – to remain at Sunderland.
He wanted to be here.
And, while he was, it was bloody good.
With all of the talk about managers over recent weeks, it’s dawned on me that the most successful incumbents of our managerial hot seat over the past 30-odd years – Smith, Reid, McCarthy, Keane, Allardyce – have a lot of similarities.
• They’re supremely confident – bordering on arrogant.
• They’re hard, as tough as they come.
• They know their own mind and won’t be swayed.
• They see Sunderland as a big, big club – a club that deserves better.
• They’re excellent man managers
• They harness the power of the fans for the greater good.
The big-name managers who’ve achieved things in the past, don’t know the club or emit the sense they’re doing us a favour – McMenemy, Moyes, Wilkinson – haven’t worked at all.
They’ve been disastrous in fact.
If you want to build a blueprint of a manager who works at Sunderland, you don’t have to look much further than Denis Smith. And, while you’re looking, throw in a bit of Reid, McCarthy and Keane too.
Happy birthday, Denis.
After the past two and a half years, it’s safe to say we look back at your spell in charge, and the 87-88 season in particular, with significantly greater levels of appreciation.