After an unbelievable four years with legendary manager Denis Smith at the helm, signs were starting to show that the wheels were sadly coming off for the Sunderland manager when December 1991 rolled around.
Languishing just above the Division Two relegation places, The Lads hadn’t won since beating Ipswich at the start of November - losing four of our previous five games, with the only point coming from a draw against our noisy neighbours Newcastle at Roker Park.
Smith’s long-time assistant Viv Busby left the club the week prior controversially and had come out in the press to criticise the club about the way they dealt with his departure - with Smith opting to demote Busby from his role as first-team coach to reserve team manager, replacing him with Malcolm Crosby, in a bid to address the team’s slide in fortunes.
Not only that, but our best player - Marco Gabbiadini - was sold to Crystal Palace, breaking the hearts of supporters all over the region having enjoyed an amazing run under Smith’s management since his arrival in 1987.
Smith opted to spend the majority of the money accrued from Marco’s sale on signing the unproven Don Goodman - an acquisition that was viewed as a huge gamble by supporters at the time who knew the former West Brom striker had huge shoes to fill.
So when December 14th 1991 rolled around, many questions remained unanswered, and another defeat for a Sunderland side potentially battling for their future as a second-tier club could have proved to be fatal for the man in charge of the team.
15,094 fans were at Roker Park that afternoon to watch the home team - sat in 19th before the start of play - take on Brian Little’s Leicester City, with new star signing Goodman starting up top for the first time on Wearside.
With pressure building on the Sunderland gaffer, fanzine A Love Supreme organised a vote that supporters could take part in before the game to ascertain whether or not the majority of fans wanted to see a change in the dugout.
Taken from that day’s Press And Journal, it was reported:
About 10,000 Sunderland fans are today set to give their opinions on the future of under-fire manager Denis Smith.
The unofficial poll, believed to be one of the biggest surveys of supporter opinion carried out at a club, is being conducted by a local fanzine.
Ballot papers will be distributed to supporters before today’s clash with Leicester at Roker Park asking them to vote on whether Mr Smith should stay or go.
Organiser Martyn McFadden said: “There have been chants against the manager recently. We want to know if they are the feelings of a vociferous few or whether the silent majority backs Denis Smith. The object of the exercise is to establish what the fans think. We want to give them a voice.”
As it turned out, the poll - in which 3980 fans took part - showed that the majority of supporters who voted were still backing Smith.
2284 voted in favour of him staying (57.38%), whilst 1696 (42.61%) wanted change.
ALS co-editor Jez Robinson told the Journal that he felt the poll accurately reflected the overall feeling of the fanbase, and that the dissenting voices were just a “noisy minority”, but Sunderland owner Bob Murray was less than impressed by the decision taken by the fanzine to poll supporters, insisting that it created unnecessary pressure on the players, who he believed were expecting to be abused by the fans inside the ground.
Even Smith himself joked about the vote after the game, proclaiming:
Could someone find out how the chairman voted?
The fact Smith had reacted angrily to questions about the poll just two days prior mattered not a lot, as he could feel more relaxed about the outcome knowing that his team had finally ended their horrid run to capture a much-needed three points.
The game itself was terrible, and was decided by a single goal - scored, of course, by Don Goodman, looping his header into the far corner of Kevin Poole’s goal to give Sunderland their first victory since November 5th.
The action was slow and laboured, and bar a couple of headers from Johnny Byrne, Sunderland rarely troubled Leicester in the first half.
We emerged after the break slightly more energised, but despite huffing and puffing, we rarely gave our visitors anything to worry about - though, Paul Bracewell’s performance was a rare shining light, and he gave Poole something to think about with a few shots from range.
Nothing much changed as the game almost ran its course, but a hopeful ball into the box by Anton Rogan in the final minute found the head of Goodman, who timed his jump brilliantly to grab his first goal in a red and white shirt.
The three points were most welcome, and the win moved the Lads up to 16th in the table, but it didn’t feel as though a corner had been turned - time, as it transpired, was unfortunately running out for Sunderland gaffer Denis Smith.