February 1989, and Denis Smith’s Roker rollercoaster was experiencing it’s first major bump.
After a slow start the 87-88 season had built serious momentum, with the Gates and Gabbiadini-led team seeing off all-comers as Sunderland surged to the title.
The 88-89 season also started slowly – in fact it wasn’t until October, seven games into the league season, that we finally notched a win. A 3-2 Saturday afternoon victory at Roker against Oldham was followed up on the Tuesday night with a 2-1 win over Billy Bremner’s Leeds United; a Billy Whitehurst diving header making the crucial difference.
In mid-December Sunderland were 16th, however, over the following weeks hit a run of form that saw the team end January in 6th place. Determined to strengthen the side to maintain the upward trajectory, and to cover for injuries and suspensions (Owers had been struggling with a persistent injury, and Gabbiadini had been red-carded during a 2-0 FA Cup defeat against Oxford in which the now-notorious Richard Hill bagged both), Smith turned to the transfer market.
After spending around £450,000 on Welsh international goalkeeper Tony Norman just after Christmas (Whitehurst and previous custodian Iain Hesford headed to Hull as part of the deal), money was tight. So Smith took a spate of players on trial to see if they were capable of adding something to his young squad.
Former Spurs winger Ally Dick arrived on trial from Ajax – and promptly left after one day, injury cutting his trial short.
Irish midfielder Paul Doolan lasted twice as long – returning to Derry City after 48 hours.
German striker Thomas Hauser also appeared at Whitburn on trial – Hauser targeted after another German striker Uwe Fuchs (who, a few years later, had a short but prolific loan spell at Middlesbrough) rejected Smith’s advances in favour of Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Former international could boost attacking threat
The most intriguing trialist, however, was former England international Peter Barnes. Still only 31, Barnes, a tricky direct winger with 22 caps, had had, up to that point, a rather nomadic career.
His five years and 115 appearances at first club Manchester City remained the longest he’d ever stayed anywhere – his next most settled spell coming immediately afterwards in the midlands, where he played 77 games, scoring 23 for West Brom. Aside from his England caps, his career highlight probably came as an 18-year-old at City – the opening goal in the 1976 League Cup Final win Newcastle – Dennis Tueart scoring the winner.
Barnes arrived on trial at Roker following spells at (deep breath) Leeds, Real Betis, Leeds again, Manchester United, Coventry, Manchester United (again), Manchester City (again) Bolton, Port Vale, Wimbledon, Hull City, Portuguese side SC Farense and Bolton Wanderers (again).
A falling out with manager Phil Neal, the ex-England and Liverpool defender, had seen Barnes depart third division Bolton under somewhat of a cloud, after only three games.
Signing a monthly contract at Roker, Barnes said he was determined to make Sunderland the last club of his career.
I know people will say, ‘here we go again, another club for Barnesy, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not finished, I want to show my critics and do something with Sunderland. I’ve always had confidence in my own ability, and I still feel I’ve got a lot to offer the game.
Time has been passing me by for the last 18 months, and this is possibly my last chance with a big club.
A player who needs the right manager
Barnes was a player, by his own admission, who needed the right manager. He said he thought he would be at Manchester United for a long time until Ron Atkinson left the club, to be replaced by Alex Ferguson. He blamed Manchester City’s manager Mel Machin’s dislike of wingers for his 16-month spell in City reserves. He felt the modern-day tactics of the late 80’s weren’t favourable to wingers of his style.
Players like me have got to be with managers who believe in attacking football, and talent. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky with the managers I’ve had over the last 18 months.
I do feel very strongly that there aren’t enough skilful wingers around because of the tactics that have taken over the game. It’s not been the right sort of game for me. But I think people up here in the northeast welcome players with talent, and that’s why I didn’t have to think twice about giving it a go.
He also believed the game in the late 80s was “lacking in characters and strong individuals,” maybe not surprising given Barnes had a bit of a reputation for being a strong individual himself - jeopardising his England career by accusing manager Ron Greenwood of being biased against players from northern clubs, for example.
Denis Smith was building an attractive, attack-minded team at Sunderland in the late 80’s, and it wasn’t difficult to see that an in-form Barnes was the type of player who could prosper. While he was a different type of player to the likes of Pascoe, Armstrong and Owers who often played wide, he had the potential to provide a good supply line for Gates and Gabbiadini, as well as adding some experience to a youthful squad.
Smith was confident the new arrival could add a lot to the team.
He’s an entertainer, he can get past people and he can cross the ball. He’s a quality player, with the sort of talent it would cost £1m to buy.
I’ve got something extra out of Eric Gates when it was said I couldn’t, and I think Peter’s got a lot he can do for us.
Barnes played in a behind-closed-doors friendly against top-flight Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park the day after arriving, ‘showing some neat touches’ in a 1-1 draw. Thomas Hauser also played, alongside Eric Gates, who scored Sunderland’s goal.
Duly impressed, Smith announced Barnes would play in Saturday’s game, away at Swindon. Surprising, given he’d only been with the club for 48 hours and had played only two other league games in the first six months that season; unsurprising as a spark as needed, coming off the back of a 3-0 home defeat to Walsall.
Denis Smith said:
He looks as if he wants to play. His fitness is quite good, and he was comfortable on the ball. I want Peter to get a hold of the ball, knock a few crosses in and produce a bit of magic somewhere along the line. I looked at him in training and enjoyed just watching him.
Despite the manager’s enthusiasm, he had a warning for Barnes before the game:
He’s got to work. I won’t tolerate idle players, however, there are different types of work. You don’t see Eric Gates chasing all over the place for the ball, but he uses his head to get into good positions. I want Peter to do what he’s good at.
Debut at the County Ground
With Gabbiadini out through suspension, Smith played an unfamiliar five-man midfield, with Barnes, from the left, and Pascoe providing the attacking width for lone frontman Gates.
An early Gordon Armstrong goal from close range put the Rokermen into the lead, however, two goals from Shearer (Duncan, not that one) and Alan McLoughlin gave Swindon a comfortable half time lead. Nine minutes after the break, Steve White made it 4-1, and shortly after, on the hour mark, Barnes was withdrawn in favour of young winger Tony Cullen, who’d been a shining light during the equally poor performance the week before.
Barnes, the match report noted, was up against it. A heavy pitch did him no favours, and neither did the understandable lack of connection with his teammates – balls were continually played ten yards ahead of him, which didn’t suit his style of play, and which he would have struggled to get onto in his heyday.
And, having barely played over the past 12 months, a few extra pounds were evident on his waistline.
Smith wasn’t happy with the performance of the team, or Barnes. Days off were cancelled, and Barnes consigned to the reserves to up his fitness levels.
“He [Barnes] faces a tough week or two,” the manager said.
Attacking talent needed
Still keen for reinforcements, a move for Coventry’s former England striker Cyrille Regis fell through after the Sky Blues wanted midfielder Armstrong in return, so Smith turned to on-trial target man Hauser, who arrived for £250,000 from Swiss club Basle. Smith noted he saw Hauser as a long-term replacement for Eric Gates, curiously describing the German as a “less physical version of Billy Whitehurst, but as good in the air as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Barnes, meanwhile, searched for fitness in the Central League during a month of first-team fixtures punctuated by international call ups. Smith noted he’d impressed the coaching staff with his attitude to training, however a niggling groin injury tempered his efforts somewhat, and when he did play he was outshone by youngsters Cullen and Owers – returning from injury.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Barnes. “It’s difficult to ask someone to judge you in a side which is trying to avoid relegation.
“I came in at the worst possible time, when the first team had lost a couple of games and we were without Marco Gabbiadini, but since then I’ve moved nearer to gaining match fitness.
“I’m still determined to make a go of it, although you need a run in the team to prove yourself.”
Injuries to Pascoe, Agboola and Doyle for the mid-March visit of Manchester City almost presented a second opportunity to Barnes, however, the Welsh winger passed a late fitness test and with it ended Barnes’ chances of scoring a longer-term contract.
Despite a run of one win and one draw in nine games, and with Barnes providing a regular Central League supply line to Hauser, another first-team opportunity failed to come and, with the end-of-March transfer deadline looming, Smith decided to release Barnes on a free after interest from fourth-tier Stockport County.
It’s a pity, because Peter was getting fitter and starting to look the part, but unfortunately he didn’t make it. We could have kept him, but the opportunity came up for him to do something elsewhere and we wish him all the best.
The nomadic forward
Barnes’ move to Stockport didn’t go to plan. A car accident while travelling to the north-west on deadline day prevented him from meeting the 5pm deadline, and as his contract had been cancelled by Sunderland, he couldn’t return to Roker either.
After declaring he hoped to make Sunderland his last club, Barnes actually appeared at a further 13 clubs – from the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the US to Irish side Cliftonville.
The game for Sunderland at the County Ground ended up being Barnes’ last league game in England, an ignoble end to a career that achieved an awful lot, but promised so much more.
And, it’s interesting to note that, despite Smith’s desperate search for attacking talent, the record books show that it was ultimately a fruitless search, with Gabbiadini, Gates and Pascoe remaining the team’s key attacking threat throughout the next season, too.