If, in June 1987, when Denis Smith took the reigns at Third Division Sunderland, you'd been told that, within four years he’d have gotten the club out of the third tier at the first attempt, and within two seasons got the club promoted to the top flight, while building a young, talented and in-demand team, you’d have expected him to get a statue and a ten-year contract, rather than the sack.
But football’s a fickle business.
After the unfortunate last-day relegation from Division One, the following season – 1991-92 – had started slowly. Smith cashed in on his prized asset Marco Gabbiadini, whose sale to Crystal Palace registered a £1.79m profit in four years, in an attempt to get rid of the hangover which seemed to engulf Roker Park.
The signings of Anton Rogan from Celtic and John Byrne from Brighton were supplemented by Gabbiadini’s replacement, West Brom’s Don Goodman, however, the new signings took a little bit of time to settle in – the expected upturn in results not forthcoming.
In fact, on Goodman’s debut at Molineux, his strike partner John Byrne was sent off after a matter of minutes. In these days, suspensions weren’t immediate – the following week Goodman and Byrne were paired together for a 1-0 win over Leicester. Byrne sat out the next two – and home victory over Portsmouth and an away defeat to Tranmere – before being paired with Goodman for an away fixture at the Manor Ground.
Pressure had been building for Smith. As well as selling Gabbiadini, Smith had also replaced popular assistant Viv Busby with reserve coach Malcolm Crosby in an attempt to provoke a response. A Love Supreme had held a supporters’ referendum on the manager’s future a few weeks earlier, which showed the majority of match-going fans were still behind the gaffer.
Going into the game against bottom of the table Oxford, it didn’t necessarily seem as if it was a make or break fixture... but the performance churned out by the team ensured it was.
A strong Sunderland team lined up as follows:
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, Ball, Rogan (Hardyman 62), Owers (Davenport 76), Bracewell, Armstrong, Brady, Goodman, Byrne.
The first half ended goalless despite a succession of Oxford chances – Smith’s team giving ‘a passable impression of non-league side, and a poor one at that’ according to the match report.
The second half was a different story – Oxford scoring three in less than a quarter of an hour, John Durnin, Trevor Aylott and Joey Beauchamp all netting to send Sunderland packing.
Derision cascaded from the terraces, provoking a ‘derisory gesture’ towards the travelling fans from new signing Byrne.
In short, it was a mess.
In The Journal, Brian McNally reported:
There were too many players who gave the impression that they simply don’t care a damn.
This woeful performance was characterised by an unforgivable absence of spirit and pride.
The extent of the shambolic Roker outfit’s stunning ineptness can be gauged from the fact rock-bottom Oxford should have won by half a dozen goals.
Sluggish Sunderland didn’t show an ounce of pride as they allowed themselves to be repeatedly torn apart by a side that are the worst in the Second Division.
In the following days, Murray – who didn’t witness the game first-hand – decided enough was enough and sacked Smith; his first managerial appointment.
After four and a half seasons, Smith departed. While managerial decisions shouldn’t necessarily be judged on what happened next, hindsight suggests we’d have been better off persevering with a talented young manager who was enduring his first really tough spell in charge.
To allow him to spend club-record money bringing in Goodman – and then sacking him after only a handful of games – was illogical, and in truth it’s a decision we suffered from until the arrival of Peter Reid three and a half years later.