On this day in 1987, Marco Gabbiadini bagged the first of his 87 goals for Sunderland as Denis Smith’s men journeyed south to take on player/manager Ray Lewington’s Fulham.
Gabbiadini had arrived at Roker Park the week before, as Smith finally strengthened his forward line – signing his former York striker for £80,000 after looking at Bristol Rover’s Gary Penrice, Northampton’s Trevor Morley and Wolves Steve Bull, among others. Marco’s arrival added some much needed pace, and a goal threat that could pivot the team. \
Gabbiadini had made his debut the weekend before in a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Chester City at Roker Park, which had left the team in 12th position. The game against Chester had followed a 3-1 defeat at Brighton, and three consecutive draws before that, leaving Smith’s side with 3 wins 4 draws and 2 defeats from their first nine games.
Hardly the stuff of a championship winning campaign and, for PPG enthusiasts, we were on 1.44.
Gabbiadini was once again paired with striker Keith Bertschin up front; Smith envisaged that Bertschin would act as the target man and Gabbiadini would thrive off him. Bertschin was still a relatively new signing at Sunderland, having arrived towards the end of the season before as McMenemy rolled the transfer dice one last time.
Sunderland lined up:
Hesford, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola; Lemon, Owers, Doyle, Atkinson (P); Bertschin, Gabbiadini.
Subs: Gray (F), Moore.
Gabbiadini took just 47 seconds to open his account for the club, pouncing on a long ball from MacPhail, using his pace and strength to power past his marker, Jeff Hopkins, before lobbing the ball over keeper Stannard.
Hesford made some good saves to keep the lead intact before Gabbiadini’s strike partner Bertschin took a kick to the head from Hopkins in the 19th minute. He received treatment and battled on, but eventually succumbed four minutes before half time – a badly cut mouth and a hamstring injury ending his game and, as it turned out, his chances of forging a partnership with Gabbiadini.
John Moore – a young target man – replaced Bertschin, Gates not making the bench on this occasion.
Hesford continued to repel the Fulham attack before Marco nearly added a second three minutes from time – his smart chip being saved at the second attempt.
As the game entered injury time, Gabbiadini did get his second – a wonderful solo effort, beating three defenders, cutting in from the left and burying the ball low past the keeper with his right foot. It was to become something of a trademark move for the striker over the following seasons.
That win – inspired by that signing – proved to be the catalyst for Sunderland’s championship charge. That win was the first of seven consecutive victories that propelled Sunderland to the top of the table and, that’s where the team remained for the rest of the season – bar a few weeks in second place after a late February/early March jitter that resulted in only two wins in eight.
Form was regained, and Sunderland clinched the title with 93 points (2.02 PPG, out of interest).
Bertschin missed the next five weeks, and within that time – which saw seven wins and one defeat in eight games – Gates’s position in the team alongside Gabbiadini was secure.
The Gates and Gabbiadini partnership – the G Force – is still remembered and recalled fondly now, but who knows what would have happened if Bertschin’s injury hadn’t made it a necessity.
With echoes of the Mick McCarthy promotion campaign, when an injury to Kevin Kyle forced together Stephen Elliott and Marcus Stewart to great effect, it just goes to show that, sometimes, the most successful strike partnerships aren’t the ones a manager necessarily envisaged from the off.