The 1988-89 season was meandering along to a rather uneventful finish. The euphoria – and relief – of the Third Division Championship campaign the season before had long subsided, and the following season was, well, a bit of a slog.
After a brief flirtation with the playoffs towards the end of January (correction: not so much a flirtation, rather a lingering glance quickly returned by a mouthed ‘no chance’) we’d ambled along, seemingly content with a safe and uneventful finish to the campaign.
When play-off chasing Ipswich Town rolled into Roker Park on a bright March afternoon, we were sitting in 14th place – the nine games after we dared to flutter our eyelashes resulting in seven defeats and four points from a possible 27. Who says we don’t take rejection well.
The Tractor Boys come to town
As you would expect, optimism wasn’t high among the 13,859 crowd that had gathered at Roker to watch Denis Smith’s Red and White Army take on an Ipswich side featuring 31-year-old John Wark (in his second of three spells at Portman Road), 21-year-old Dalian Atkinson (who was being linked with a move to the top-flight, and in the summer of 1989 would join Sheffield Wednesday), Chris Kiwomya and David Linighan.
Also lining up for Ipswich that day was USSR international fullback Sergei Baltacha, who’d played in the European Championship Final the previous summer. Incidentally, Baltacha is the father of Elena Baltacha, the British tennis player, who sadly passed away aged 30 in 2014.
The Sunderland side named by Denis Smith showed two changes from the side that went down 2-1 at home in a spirited performance against eventual champions Chelsea the Tuesday before.
In came fit-again Welsh international Colin Pascoe for Paul Lemon, and replacing Irishman Tommy Lynch at left-back was 30-year-old debutant, Scotsman Alan Hay.
Hay had been a regular under Denis Smith for four seasons at York City, but after a stint at Tranmere during the 86-87 had disappeared from league football for 18 months – choosing to turn out for a local Scottish team, Hill of Beath Hawthorn.
After seeing Hay make a guest appearance in a testimonial game at Bootham Cresent towards the end of 1988 (Hay subsequently went on to play one further league game for York), Smith offered Hay a February trial, alongside a number of other players including former Spurs winger Ally Dick, and ex-England international Peter Barnes. Hay impressed and signed on a month-to-month contract.
“Alan gives me cover,” said Smith at the time. “He’s a natural left-back but can also play in the centre of defence.
“With Reuben Agboola still on a weekly contract, I know Alan could go in and do me a job if I was short ion the first team.”
Agboola hadn’t been able to agree terms on a new deal since his contract expired at the end of the 87-88 season, preferring to remain on a weekly deal. The following month, however, Agboola signed a new two-year deal.
Smith was never particularly happy with his left-back options throughout the season, or indeed during his whole time at Roker Park. Frank Gray or Reuben Agboola usually lined up on the left side of defence throughout the 88-89 campaign – Birmingham City’s John Frain was a perennial transfer target that never came to fruition.
Hay’s spell on Wearside hadn’t got off to the brightest of starts – a 2-0 Central League defeat at home to Coventry in February saw him get skinned by Dave Bennett (brother of Gary) in the build-up to Coventry’s first. Coventry’s second, meanwhile, came directly from Hay himself – an unnecessary backpass to keeper Tim Carter missing its intended target and finding the back of the net instead.
Still, Smith had high hopes of Hay, in his own pointed way.
“The lad has always had ability, but I still think there’s more to come out of him. He’s played in the first division with Bristol City, but he should have achieved more than he has.
“He’s a natural athlete, and the game has always come easy to him. Perhaps that’s been one of his problems.”
Hay had been struggling in the run-up to the game with an achilles injury and had failed a fitness test prior to the fixture with Chelsea; Lynch given a rare start.
Alan’s Hay day
Against Ipswich, Hay lined up at left-back, with Frank Gray operating as a sweeper behind captain John MacPhail and Richard Ord. Gary Bennett – who’d had the captaincy taken off him earlier in the season by Smith – operated at right-back for large parts of this season; thanks in part to an injury to John Kay, and part Smith’s nervousness about the gaps Bennett’s surging runs from the centre defence were leaving, and believing he could do more damage from the right.
Hay started brightly, composed on the ball and solid defensively. After just 28 minutes, however, he was sat on the pitch in front of the Main Stand Fulwell End Paddock, signalling to Steve Smelt his game was up. A calf injury bringing his day to an early end.
Replaced by Paul Lemon, a tactical reshuffle followed, and Sunderland took the lead less than 10 minutes later – Marco netting from the spot, sending keeper Ron Fearon the wrong way.
One-nil up at half time, Sunderland went into the closing minutes with a surprisingly commanding 3-0 lead thanks to a lovely goal from Gary Owers and a trademark second from Marco, driving past Baltacha and into the box, before slotting it past the wrong-footed keeper.
An injury-time penalty, given for a foul by Fearon on Gabbiadini after a neat one-two with substitute Gates, offered the chance for Sunderland’s prized asset to claim his first-ever hat-trick for the club.
Marco, who’d taken over penalty duties from John MacPhail earlier in the season, was never truly convincing from the spot, often giving the keeper more than a fighting chance.
And so it proved. Ron Fearon saving the spot-kick. The rebound, however, fell kindly for Gabbiadini who slotted it away to complete his hattrick.
The jubilation lasted mere nanoseconds, however. A push in the back from an Ipswich defender as he put the rebound away saw Marco return the favour in the shape of another right hook. (More of a slap said Billy Hardy after the game.) A melee quickly ensued, and referee David Allison brandished red.
It was Gabbiadini’s second red card of the season – the first for giving Richard Hill – yes, that Richard Hill – a punch during an FA Cup Third Round replay at Oxford (the replay necessary after Hill had equalised Richard Ord’s opener) . After sitting out three games, he’d scored eight in seven – his upcoming four-game suspension putting paid to any lingering aspirations we may have had for the season. He was close to tears walking off the pitch – and he never took another competitive penalty for Sunderland again.
The search for a left-back: to be continued
And as for Hay, his injury ruled him out for a month or so.
“I’m sick,” he said after the game. “It was my chance to show what I could do, but there was no way I could go on.
“I’d been protecting my achilles tendon, which almost kept me out of the game, but the damage was higher up.
“It’s a Catch-22 situation now. I want the boys to do well, but if they do I might not get another chance to prove myself.”
And so it was.
Initially ruled out for four weeks, by the time Hay had regained fitness the season was drawing to a close and Smith – never one for sentimentality – released him.
“I feel sorry for Alan,” Denis said. “He worked hard when I gave him the opportunity to come here, but it’s backfired on him. I had given him until the end of the season to prove himself, so it was time to make a decision. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, I can’t keep him.”
Hay reemerged at Torquay the next season, playing 10 games, which were his last in professional football, before heading back to Scotland to coach.
He did reappear in the northeast, though – as assistant manager to John MacPhail, during our former central defender’s stint as Hartlepool player/manager in 1994.