On this day in 1988, the papers were reflecting on the debut of new Sunderland striker, Billy Whitehurst, who’d made his bow in red and white in the previous day’s 3-2 defeat to Birmingham City at St Andrews.
After the team notched only one goal in three games on its return to Division Two – that one goal coming from skipper Gary Bennett in the opening day draw to Bournemouth – Smith had stepped up his search for extra firepower.
And it was Whitehurst he turned to in order to give the side some additional firepower, more street smarts, and give Gabbiadini – who was increasingly being targeted by experienced centre backs – a bit more muscular protection than Eric Gates could muster.
So, after a short spell at Reading, Whitehurst headed to the north east once more – he’d had a spell at Newcastle in the mid-80s; putting Everton’s Paul Bracewell on the sidelines for a couple of seasons in the process.
“In the north east you’re either top of the world or down in the dumps, there are no in betweens,” said Whitehurst upon his arrival.
Whitehurst had left Newcastle after only 10 months, making an ‘obscene gesture’ to
52,000 15,893 screaming Geordies, who’d given him some abuse while making his way off the pitch after being substituted in a game against Bradford.
“Denis Smith’s given me the opportunity to prove myself to the north east public when I thought the chance had gone for ever. I want to prove he’s right for having faith in me,” Billy said upon his arrival.
Whitehurst’s signing cost £100,000 – Smith’s first six-figure signing of his managerial career – and he lined up at St Andrews less than 48 hours after his arrival, replacing the injured Gabbiadini.
Sunderland: Hesford, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Gray; Pascoe, Owers, Doyle, Armstrong; Gates, Whitehurst.
Big Billy’s debut didn’t go to plan, however. A 29th minute booking for a ‘robust’ tackle on John Friain – a full back continually linked to Sunderland under Smith – blunted his effectiveness.
Two down going into the final six minutes – Birmingham’s opener scored by former Sunderland skipper Ian Atkins – Pascoe pulled one back before Birmingham hit an immediate reply. Another Pascoe goal in the last minute gave the scoreline an air of respectability, and the game ended in a 3-2 defeat.
As for Whitehurst, he was a regular in the team over the next few months, replacing Eric Gates in the team. During his spell at Sunderland, Whitehurst wore number 10, with Marco, when he returned from injury a few games later, taking – what was, for him – the unusual number 9 shirt.
Over the next 15 games, the side lost only twice, winning five and drawing eight. Whitehurst scoring some memorable goals, including a wonderful diving header in the Fulwell End to seal victory over Leeds, and a stunning hit in a 4-0 home win over Swindon.
For all his fearsome reputation – which was totally and utterly deserved – Whitehurst was the type of player you wanted on your team. Incredibly hardworking – and described as ‘terrifying’, ‘a maniac’ and ‘malicious’ by various opponents during his career – he was also a decent player with a nice touch, and certainly diverted attention, which took opponents’ focus away from the likes of Gabbiadini and Pascoe to prosper.
After a disappointing 3-1 defeat away at Leicester in December, however, Whitehurst was dropped to the bench and Gates reinstated. Also dropped was Iain Hesford – replaced by Tim Carter – and a comprehensive win at Plymouth Argyle followed, as did a Boxing Day win at home to Barnsley.
In the run up to the next game – a New Year’s Eve fixture at home to Portsmouth – both Whitehurst and Hesford departed, used as makeweights in a deal to bring Hull’s Tony Norman to Roker Park. Smith didn’t necessarily want Whitehurst to leave – he just wanted Norman more.
In total, Whitehurst turned out only 18 times for Sunderland, notching 3 goals, which is something of a shame, as he was more than a useful player, who added another dimension to the side.
He returned to Roker – with Hesford – two months later, lining up for Hull in a 2-0 defeat, Whitehurst was shown a red card – something he didn’t manage for Sunderland. After ‘leaving a size nine imprint’ on the chest of Gordon Armstrong, Whitehurst was yellow carded for going through Gary Bennett.
He received a red after dishing out similar treatment to Bennett’s central defensive partner MacPhail, a minute after a cracking goal from Gabbiadini – himself playing his first game back after a three-game red-card ban – had sealed victory.
He went on to play for Sheffield United among a host of other clubs, and the tales of his off-field antics are the stuff of legend.