As October had progressed, Sunderland’s charge towards the Division Three championship picked up the pace. Marco Gabbiadini’s arrival from York had, after a debut defeat at home to Chester, prompted a run of seven consecutive wins. Sunderland had scored 19, conceding only four – Marco scoring seven.
The run had come to a halt on Halloween, however, as Sunderland fell to a 2-1 defeat to fellow promotion rivals Notts County at Meadow Lane – former Forest striker Gary Birtles scoring two after John MacPhail’s opener.
As happens in third flight football, we had an instant opportunity to get back onto the right track with a midweek home game against Southend United.
Denis Smith was facing something of an injury crisis at centre back. Skipper Gary Bennett had already missed five games and was likely to miss the next two months of action thanks to a stress fracture in his foot.
Bennett’s replacement had been David Corner, but he’d picked up an ankle injury, as had fellow centre back Nigel Saddington, so 17-year-old Richard Ord and 22-year-old Michael Heathcote - who’d joined the club in the summer from Spennymoor - had been parachuted into the squad.
Denis Smith told The Journal’s Paul Hetherington before the game:
The news on Bennett has not put me in the best of moods. I thought it was looking quite good for him and this was the last thing I expected. He could be out for two months, but we will just have to accept it because there is nothing we can do about it.
Either Ord or Heathcote will have to play against Southend and that will take the number of players we have used this season up to 22. Normally successful teams don’t have to make many changes.
Michael was a lorry driver who was playing part time and he found the step up hard. Full time training took a lot out of him. It usually takes the body six months to get atuned to it, but he is getting to grips with it and he is going to be a good player.
It was our first-ever meeting against the men from Roots Hall, and it was Ord who got the nod to start, partnering John MacPhail in the heart of the defence.
Sunderland: Hesford, Kay, MacPhail, Ord (Heathcote 68), Gray, Owers, Cornforth (Lemon 56), Armstrong, Atkinson, Gates, Gabbiadini.
Southend: Steele, Martin, Johnson, Ling, Westley, Hall, Clark (Smith 54), Pennyfather, Robinson, McDonagh, Rogers. Sub not used: Neal
There were early chances at both ends – Pennyfather firing over for the visitors and Atkinson heading wide from a Gabbiadini cross, Owers and Gabbiadini going close before Martin Ling (who was a perennial Sunderland target in the late 80s/early 90s) almost capitalised on a stray back pass from Frank Gray, but Gray was able to atone for his mistake, getting back to block the ball.
Just after the half hour mark, Sunderland took the lead, and it was Gabbiadini who grabbed his eighth goal in nine games – rounding the keeper and finishing from a tight angle after being played in by Eric Gates.
Gates almost doubled the lead before Southend hit the bar – which launched a Sunderland counter attack. Armstrong released Atkinson, who scored low at the keeper’s near post.
Gates made it three before half time, finishing neatly from Atkinson’s cross, and shortly after the restart the former England striker grabbed his second and Sunderland’s fourth after a defensive mix up involving the Southend keeper Steele and player/manager Paul Clark, whose attempted back pass to his keeper was challenged by Gates, who managed to emerge with the ball and fire it home.
Paul Atkinson got his second of the game for Sunderland, putting in a John Kay cross that had been missed by the defence, before Ling cleared off the line, denying Gates his hat-trick.
Gatesy, rejuvenated by the arrival of Gabbiadini, didn't have to wait too long for his treble, however. Gabbiadini intercepted Hall’s backpass for his little partner to sweep the ball in.
There was a scare for Sunderland in the closing stages – Heathcote, who’d come off the bench to replace Ord for his debut, was stretchered off with a suspected broken leg, and Sunderland played the closing stages with 10 men. (The post-game news on Heathcote’s injury was positive – it was an ankle ligament injury, rather than a broken leg, meaning three weeks on the sidelines.)
That didn’t put an end to the scoring, however – Gates got his fourth and Sunderland’s seventh of the evening, with a good finish after Armstrong’s surging run.
Seven-nil. Easy this third tier lark, isn’t it?