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On This Day: 21 Sept 1991 – Grimsby loss forces Smith to react... Did it cost him his job?

After relegation, Sunderland had been expected to mount a serious promotion charge. But a slow start saw pressure mount from fans, press and other managers alike - and it forced Denis Smith into a couple of controversial decisions...

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Coventry City v Sunderland - Highfield Road Photo by Dave Munden - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

On this day in 1991, Marco Gabbiadini played his final game for Sunderland, after almost four years at the club.

Relegated the previous season despite winning plaudits across the country for our attacking style of play, the 1991-92 Division Two campaign – which we’d expected to start in a positive fashion – had seen the team stumble out of the blocks, with three wins and three defeats from the first seven games.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Manchester City v Sunderland - Maine Road
Relegation had hit Smith hard
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Gabbiadini – and the team as a whole – had faced criticism from supporters, press and other clubs alike. However a midweek 4-1 victory against Charlton at Upton Park – in which Marco had netted a six minute hattrick – had left the team in eighth place.

Despite the victory, all wasn’t right at Roker Park. Gary Bennett had been stripped of the captaincy after being a no-show for an end of season trip, Denis Smith – once again – hadn’t been backed in the transfer market – and there seemed to be a general relegation hangover all around the club.

Smith’s Blackburn counterpart Tony Parkes had accused Sunderland of resorting to a long ball game in a bid to keep up with the promotion race after we’d slugged out a 1-1 home draw with Rovers a couple of weeks before.

Smith, who was combative and prickly by nature, said on the morning of the game against Grimsby Town, “It’s not the type of football I want to play, and to be accused of it is an insult. The fans in the northeast demand a certain standard, and I’m quite pleased to work with that.

“But they expected us to go through the Second Division winning every game and that was never going to be the case.

“The difficult thing is getting the balance between attractive and winning football.”

Soccer - FA Cup Semi Final - Sunderland v Norwich City
Norman starred in the FA Cup run later that season
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

The crowd had become frustrated at goalkeeper Tony Norman’s long balls upfield during the Blackburn game.

At the time, keepers tended to launch the ball upfield from their hands, however in the mid-80s Norman, with Hull City, had begun to dribble the ball out of his box and then kick it upfield, gaining significant extra yards. He was reputed to be the first ‘dribbling goalkeeper’; Dave Beasant of Wimbledon replicating the tactic in the topflight to good effect.

Norman had continued his dribble-the-punt tactics at Sunderland, however the fans had grown frustrated and Smith had instructed the Welshman to refrain from doing it.

“We see it as a long pass rather than just a big boot, and everyone does it nowadays,” he said.

“I’ve told him not to do it unless he can’t help it, because I got so much stick from the fans and the press. There’s no point antagonising people over such a minor matter.”

And it was against this backdrop of unrest Sunderland took to the field against Grimsby. After his quickfire hattrick days before, Marco was hoping to add to his tally of five goals in the first eight games.

Prior to the Charlton game, Marco had ‘incurred the wrath of the terraces after a sluggish start to the season,’ and Smith said, “I persevered with him the other night and it came off. Marco’s record at the club is very good, and he won’t have been happy with his performances up to the Charlton game. He looked sharper all round, and got the goals he deserved. Now he’s got to do it consistently.”

In typical Sunderland fashion, however, a fixture that looked like the perfect home game to get back on track was a complete let down.

We went down to an early goal and Marco went off injured at half time. Entering the final throes of the game, Pascoe got an equaliser and, as we pushed for a late winner, Grimsby caught us on the break and future Sunderland midfielder Shaun Cunnington netted the winner – much to the chagrin of the Roker crowd.

With pressure from various quarters growing and growing on Smith it’s easy to understand why he decided to twist when an offer for Gabbiadini came in from Crystal Palace. With no transfer funds available to change the side too heavily, he gambled on cashing in his most valuable asset.

Marco Gabbiadini of Crystal Palace
Marco struggled to make an impression at Palace, where he was signed to replace Ian Wright

Peter Beagrie immediately arrived on loan from Everton and over the coming months Anton Rogan, Don Goodman and John Byrne arrived with the Marco money. Smith, desperate to provoke a change of fortunes, promoted Malcolm Crosby from reserve coach to assistant manager, disposing of Viv Busby, who was hugely popular among the players.

In hindsight, these were all reactionary moves that had too much desperation about them, and Smith ultimately paid the price, losing his job at the end of the year after a 3-0 post-Christmas defeat to Oxford which left us languishing in 17th place.

The Gabbiadini sale didn’t work out for Sunderland, for Smith or for Marco himself. The FA Cup run, although fantastic at the time, forced Bob Murray to give Malcolm Crosby a job he was – in truth – never qualified for, and so started a decline that lasted three years until the arrival of Peter Reid.

Sometimes, battening down the hatches and riding out the storm is by far the preferable option.