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Sunderland Managers of the 1980s: Part 3 - Denis Smith’s red and white army!

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With the club on the floor and licking its wounds after relegation to the third tier in walked a straight talking, confident, no-nonsense guy from York who told us to get up and cheer up because we were going to smash the league.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division Two - Stoke City v Brighton & Hove Albion Photo by Adam Davy/EMPICS via Getty Images

Denis Smith 1987-1991

After relegation the club was once again heavily in debt and there was a real threat of going out of business. In a move that has been forgotten over time, Bob Murray gave the club an interest free loan of his own money to pay off the debt. His next move was to find a manager.

After Tom Cowie’s disastrous two year experiment of going big with Lawrie McMenemy, Murray went quietly understated with appointment of Denis Smith.

He had made a good reputation in the lower leagues during his stay at York, getting the club promoted into the old Division Three, collecting a couple of cup scalps (including Sunderland) and generally punching above their weight. He knew the league we had just been relegated into, so it was felt amongst the fans he was a sound enough appointment although they didn’t know really what to expect.

Denis did. At the end of his first day in his press briefing he proclaimed ‘ lets go up as champions’. Players of the time tell of him finding a somewhat subdued newly relegated squad and breezing in with immediate confidence lifting everyone.

Not only that he immediately recognised what his players were good at, what they could do and what they could not. After relegation, the noises coming from the club hierarchy were that players such as Eric Gates and keeper Hesford would not play for the club again, but these two became key in the promotion winning side.

Eric Gates Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

His masterstroke famously was the purchase of Marco Gabbiadini, who was paired with Eric Gates. After two years of chasing high balls under McMenemy and invoking the wrath of the fans, Eric suddenly found he could show what he did best. The team had a simple plan, get the ball to his feet where he would play it onto the searing pace of Gabbiadini.

It was a combination that wasn’t actually the first choice of the manager and almost hit on by accident. When Gabbiadini joined, Smith paired him with Keith Bertschin, a straight centre forward who had a touch of pace over the first few yards.

However, he was injured within a couple of games and when Gates replaced him in the side the team changed their style of play. So successful where the team playing the ball to the feet of Gates, that when Marco was injured for a couple of games and Bertschin filled in for him, they persisted with the same style, electing to try and use Bertschin’s turn of pace rather than his prowess in the air as a centre forward.

The team ran away with the Third Division title in his first season, consolidated in the Second Division the next year, before making a push for the play-offs in his third.

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It should be noted that Sunderland were up against the likes of the Sheffield United of Deane and Agana, Newcastle with Quinn and McGhee, a Leeds team who within three years would be League Champions and then Swindon who had a very useful (and better) team. Without much money to spend, Sunderland finished in sixth place, yet Smith felt the team were not quite ready for the First Division. However, despite defeat in the play off final of 1990, that is where Sunderland found themselves after Swindon’s demotion.

Lacking funds to do anything other than replace ageing and retiring players, it is a testament to Smith that Sunderland fought so gamely to stay up in 90-91, with pundits of the time remarking that Sunderland always seemed to be playing on maximum each game. Ultimately, they fell just short and were relegated. Early in the next season, Smith tried to wheel and deal to strengthen the whole team, but time ran out for him before he could see the fruition of this.

For taking Sunderland from the third tier to the first with very little outlay, Denis Smith should be remembered up alongside Peter Reid, taking Sunderland from a lower league and with nothing of the funds that Reid had even before the move to the SOL.

He has been without doubt a very underrated manager. Time has let people appreciate him more, particularly in the past couple of years as we find ourselves in the third tier again.