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On This Day (2 November 1991): Craig Russell debuts as John Byrne nets his first for Sunderland

A pair of Sunderland goalscoring legends featured as we got a welcome home win over Watford for under-pressure Denis Smith...

An 11:30am kick-off on a Saturday morning attracted a crowd of just over 12,000 to Roker Park, including a nine-year-old me, desperately in search of new striking heroes after the departure of Marco Gabbiadini only a few weeks earlier.

And that day I found just the man in the form of the one and only John Byrne.

Denis Smith had finally persuaded his long-term target and former York City colleague to join him on Wearside from Brighton and Hove Albion, where he had landed after his spell in France with Le Harvre had come to a premature end.

John Byrne featured in the matchday programme for this fixture, where he scored his first Sunderland goals

A mistake from a young David James in the Watford goal gifted Byrne his first goal for Sunderland, and his 100th English league goal of his career on 13 minutes, when the future England star failed to deal with a Gordon Armstrong cross.

Armstrong added the second after Peter Davenport’s shot from a Byrne cross landed in his path, but Sunderland struggled to maintain their lead against a side that included ex-England international Luther Blissett and Wearsider Gary Porter - Tony Norman and John Kay at the heart of a spirited rearguard action for the home side.

Byrne, however, would put the game to bed in some style on 73 minutes, chipping the ball over James from a Paul Bracewell through-ball to make it 3-0. Porter would score a consolation goal in front of his friends and family a few minutes later, but Sunderland claimed the victory and three vital points in a season that wasn’t going to plan for Smith.

As Jeff Brown reported in the Newcastle Journal the following Monday, Smith was generous in his praise for his old mate Byrne:

They’ll all be talking about him in the pubs and clubs tonight. They’ve seen skills from John there that people maybe haven’t seen... ever!!!

They say never meet your heroes, but during lockdown I had the pleasure and the honour of spending an hour or so in the virtual company of Byrne, a true raconteur and an absolute gent, now working helping people with diabetes as an NHS podiatrist. You can listen to the podcast we recorded together here.

On the bench that day was a young 17-year-old Sunderland supporter from Jarrow, Craig Russell. Like many of my generation, I had first seen Russell’s talents on show at the Sunderland International Tournament at Silksworth Sports Complex the previous summer, where he finished top scorer. He was the next off the production line after Kieron Brady.

Peter Beagrie had returned to Everton from his loan spell the week before, and this presented a surprise opportunity for the local lad. Russell had scored for the youth team against Bury on the Monday, and then had been called up into the reserves for a mid-week game against Rotherham away on the Wednesday and played on the wing, and then called up to the first-team squad late on the Friday evening for the game the next morning.

He got the last 15 minutes of the game, and told the whole story of this episode and the rest of his career in the game to Chris Wynn on the Roker Rapport Podcast last year, and you can hear it on the video below.

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