It had been almost two months since Marco Gabbiadini had left Sunderland to sign for Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace in a deal worth a reported £1.8 million.
Finding a replacement was proving difficult for manager Denis Smith.
Although Everton winger Peter Beagrie had joined on loan the same day as Gabbiadini departed and 25-year-old defender Anton Rogan had signed from Celtic, the acquisition of a goalscoring striker had so far proved elusive.
Irish international forward John Byrne had been brought in from Brighton & Hove Albion at the end of October, however he was very much in the Eric Gates mould – a foil for a goalscorer – and he needed someone to play off him.
It was the first time Denis Smith had a substantial transfer kitty in his managerial career to date, and he quickly found himself under pressure to recruit as Sunderland stumbled along with life back in Barclays League Division Two.
Peter Davenport had struggled for goals in Division One and this continued in Division Two as he was increasingly deployed in a midfield role. It was a similar story for David Rush who also had opportunities to show what he could do, but it was evident Sunderland needed someone to put the ball in the back of the net – and quickly.
The team sat in 14th position in Division Two after drawing the Wear-Tyne derby at Roker Park on the 17th of November; Davenport scoring his first League goal of the season in a 1-1 draw. And, as the next fixture at Plymouth Argyle approached, Denis Smith made his move.
Talks had been ongoing between Sunderland and Republic of Ireland international David Kelly, who was at the time scoring the goals that were propelling a promotion push for Brian Little’s Leicester City, who were sitting 5th in Division Two.
A transfer fee of around £300,000 was agreed between the two clubs and all that was left was for the player to agree personal terms. And, on this day in 1991, Denis Smith was waiting in a Plymouth hotel for a call that would finalise the deal.
In the past, players signed and asked about wages later but those days are long gone. With an agent involved I never expected anything to be pushed through by now, but I get the impression David wants to join us and he’ll probably phone me in our hotel at Plymouth later today.
In the days that followed, however, not only did Sunderland go down by a single goal defeat at Plymouth Argyle, but it emerged that Smith had lost out on claiming the signature of the 26-year-old striker – reportedly baulking at his £1,000 per week wage demands.
The Sunderland manager was keen to stress to the Sunderland followers that this had nothing to do with being priced out of the deal.
I could have easily signed Kelly by agreeing to his demands, but that would not have been good for the club nor the supporters and it may have disrupted the dressing room. I have a board of directors whom I am accountable to and a bank manager to keep happy. I will not go through with a deal if I do not think it is right.
Through December 1991, moves came to fruition not only for Denis Smith and Sunderland but also for David Kelly.
Don Goodman would be the man who eventually signed to partner John Byrne up front at Roker, but it was a case of too little, too late for the manager as he was controversially sacked following a 3-0 defeat at Oxford United on the 28th December.
David Kelly joined Newcastle United under the stewardship of Ossie Ardiles in a deal worth £250,000 in December 1991, and three months later scored the winner against Sunderland in the second derby of the season at St James Park.
He scored 11 goals to keep Newcastle up that season, and netted 28 the following term, as our neighbours stormed to the Second Division title, while we inadvertently avoided relegation by a single point.
In hindsight, maybe he’d have been worth splashing the cash on.
Four years later, Kelly did eventually sign for Sunderland as he approached his 30th birthday in late September 1995 – a fee of around £900,000 paid to Wolves to strengthen Peter Reid’s promotion push.
His contribution to that title win was curtailed by an ankle injury suffered on international duty only a few months after joining, which meant he wouldn’t appear for Sunderland until the opening day of the Premier League campaign.
As Peter Reid’s side struggled for goals, Kelly was deployed on the right of midfield in a season of frustration for player and club that ultimately ended in relegation. His record for Sunderland would read two goals in forty appearances when his former Republic of Ireland teammate John Aldridge secured his signature in a deal worth around £350,000.