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Marco Gabbiadini - the first Sunderland player I ever loved

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Ole, ole, ole, ole. You always remember your first love, right? And – football-wise at least – mine was Marco Gabbiadini.

Marco Gabbiadini Photo by Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images

For those under thirty, you’ll probably have never seen him turn out for us. If you’re under thirty-five you might have seen him play, but probably don’t remember it too clearly. Either way, you probably know him better as a Radio Newcastle pundit, who often watches the extended highlights of games.

And, that’s a huge shame because, for me, Marco WAS Sunderland. He made me fall in love with football. He made me fall in love with Sunderland. And it’s his fault (and my Dad’s) that to this day our score determines my weekend’s mood.

It all started for Marco in 1987 when, after a somewhat slow start to the season, Denis Smith turned to his former club York City to bring the nineteen-year-old forward to the club. Bobby Saxton, the new York City manager, accepted our offer of £80,000.

Interestingly, when he signed, he was touted as someone who could play in midfield too, but Smith said he was thinking more of pushing him upfront.

A lively yet goalless debut in a home defeat to Chester City a few days after signing was merely a warm-up. Six goals in the next three games saw him quickly come to life – and with it our prospects of returning to division two at the first attempt.

Marco Gabbiadini Photo by Tom Jenkins/Allsport/Getty Images

Paired with Eric Gates after an injury to initial strike partner Keith Bertschin, Marco bagged 21 in 35 league games as we clinched the title.

As a player, Marco was the type of player you happily pay money to watch.

His thighs were like tree trunks, and he had lighting pace that could take him past defenders with ease.

He was a busy player. Without the ball, he’d close down, harry and hassle. Defenders were never given a moment’s peace.

With the ball, he was single-minded. He was a goalscorer. But not a penalty box striker, far from it. He’d pick the ball up from deep and run at defenders, forcing them to back off until he had a sight of goal. And as long as he had a sight – clear or not – he’d have a crack. Sometimes to the frustration of his teammates, more often than not to the applause of the crowd.

He was capable of scoring all sorts of goals. Inside the box, outside the box, left foot, right foot, head. It didn’t matter. He was just as likely to rifle one in from the edge of the box with minimal backlift than get on the end of a cross. In fact, he rarely scored ordinary goals. He was rarely that ‘Johnny on the spot’. He created things himself, he made things happen, and he gave his all every single game, which the crowd loved.

For a player of his size and pace, he was strong, too. In his early days, this often led to him being caught up in running battles with defenders. Once or twice he saw red – most famously for punching an Ipswich defender after completing his hattrick from a rebound off his own saved penalty.

Under Smith’s management, however, he calmed his temperament, and by the 1989-90 season was being talked about as a genuine contender for the England squad in Italia 90. Steve Bull, the Wolves forward, had been capped in the summer as a division three player, and he and Marco were vying for the wild card striker slot in Bobby Robson’s squad.

An England B appearance in the run-up to the tournament was as close as he got, however. The 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia at Roker Park seeing Marco on the periphery and Arsenal’s Alan Smith bagging two.

Scouts from bigger teams were frequent guests at Roker Park, with Gabbiadini, along with Owers and Armstrong, the focus of their attention. Liverpool and Forest were heavily linked – Cloughie, no doubt, saw something of himself in Gabbiadini – as were Rangers, who were rumoured to have proposed a swap deal with former Sunderland striker Ally McCoist.

Marco Gabbiadini Sunderland AFC Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images

Nothing came to fruition, and we were able to keep hold of probably the most coveted young player in the country. Promotion, of course, came that summer, and 21-year-old Gabbiadini, with 71 goals in 140 starts headed to the top flight.

After notching a cracker in the first game of the season, a 3-2 reverse at Norwich, he notched a further two in the next five games. His season was, unfortunately, affected by injury.

After starting a remarkable 58 games in 89-90, he missed eight league games in the first division season, coming back towards the end of the campaign unfit, but desperate to help us survive.

The following season he started in typical fashion - five goals in nine games. In fact, on his last appearance for us, he notched a six-minute hattrick in a 4-1 victory over Charlton at Upton Park.

It had been a stuttering start to the season, with three wins and two draws from the first eight games, and Denis Smith wanted to reshape the side.

Whether he was under pressure from above or not, I don’t know. But selling Marco at that point of the season, for £1.8m to Crystal Palace, seemed a panic move then, and even more so now. It was a roll of the dice that didn’t work for anyone concerned.

Marco headed to Selhurst Park as a replacement for Arsenal-bound Ian Wright, but never really settled, scoring five in fifteen games before being shipped out to Derby County.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Crystal Palace v Southampton Photo by Paul Marriott/EMPICS via Getty Images

While he scored 50 for Derby in over 180 games, his career never really hit the heights it did at Roker Park, and he didn’t get anywhere near realising the true potential he showed at Sunderland.

Denis lasted only a couple of months more – a further five wins and eleven defeats from nineteen games after Marco’s departure saw Bob Murray – hastily – pull the trigger.

You can only wonder what would have happened if Marco hadn’t been sold. I suspect Denis would have lasted longer than 19 games, for certain. When you look back at Gabbiadini’s career, and how it went after he departed Roker, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an exaggeration to say he was easily one of the most exciting - if not the most exciting - young player in the country for a few years.

It’s no exaggeration whatsoever.

He’s a player I adored. For my first few seasons as a supporter, he WAS Sunderland. I feel genuinely sorry for people who didn’t get to see him play first-hand because he was a player you enjoyed watching. A player who excited the crowd, a player who you felt proud that he was on our side, and someone you felt that, when he was in the side, good things were bound to happen.

And, more often than not, they did.