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A portrait of Denis Smith the manager of Oxford United

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On This Day (24 Dec 1988): Scrooge Smith is full of festive cheer as he targets transfer breakthrough

The Sunderland manager wanted to strengthen the side... but Christmas was a difficult time for transfers.

Back in the day, the only transfer deadline came at 5pm on a Thursday towards the end of March. A rush of faxes and hand-delivered transfer forms made their way to the Football League’s HQ in Lytham St Annes – and woe betide anyone encountering roadworks on the M62.

Of course, that meant that transfers were a continual thing throughout the course of the season – there was always the ability to bring players in or move players out. Speculation was continual, but it avoided the mad rush and consequential panic buying we witness with today’s transfer windows.

Denis Smith was on a continual quest to strengthen his squad at Sunderland, but was rarely backed with anything approaching a sizeable transfer kitty. He was forced to wheel and deal for the majority of his time at Sunderland, spending what he could generate through player sales.

When you look back on it today, the job he did getting Sunderland out of the Third Division was remarkable – especially considering our experiences over the past three and a half years. The signing of Marco Gabbiadini was key, of course – that £80,000 spent on his York protege was generated by the £275,000 sale to Sheffield Wednesday of midfielder Mark Proctor.

Soccer - Littlewoods Cup - Third Round - Leicester City v Oxford United
Whitehurst had also had a spell at Oxford – but after only four months on Wearside Smith would trade him in for a new keeper
Photo by Phil O’Brien/EMPICS via Getty Images

After promotion, the only signing Smith was able to make to strengthen the side was that of Reading striker Billy Whitehurst, who joined the club for around £100,000, and immediately displaced Eric Gates in the Sunderland attacking line up.

By the time Christmas Eve had rolled around, Gates had been restored to the team. A run of six league games without a win had seen the team drop from eight to 16th. Whitehurst had scored only two goals, despite generally contributing positively, and for the previous Saturday’s trip to Plymouth Argyle, the big striker had been dropped to the bench, and Gates restored to the team. A 4-1 win ensued, Gates influential throughout and netting the final goal only minutes from time.

In the build up to the Boxing Day fixture at home to Barnsley, Smith was targeting additional reinforcements – although he didn’t seem to think something was as imminent as it transpired to be.

In comments that wouldn’t be out of place today, Smith told The Journal:

I have wanted to strengthen the squad since the start of the season, but the prices being quoted for very average players are ludicrous, and the wages they want are ridiculous.

The transfer market has gone haywire again this season and I am not going to pay over the odds for players who won’t improve what we have got.

I know the fans would love to see a couple of new faces. So would I. But my job is to produce a winning football team within the financial restraints set by the board.

The board have been good to me in making cash available, but unfortunately the right players just haven’t been there.

We have the structure of a good side. Now we just need to put the flesh on it.

Our home record, although we are unbeaten, has let us down. We have simply drawn too many matches.

We have got to make sure that starts changing when we take on Barnsley on Boxing Day and Portsmouth on New Year’s Eve.

And by the time the Portsmouth game rolled around, a new club record signing was in the starting XI – Tony Norman had arrived from Hull City, with Whitehurst and Iain Hesford travelling to Boothferry Park in part exchange.

Although how much the team would have enjoyed Christmas is debatable... invoking the true spirit of Scrooge, Smith said:

I always like to take the players away from their families on Christmas Day. When you have an important football match to play there are too many distractions at home.

Bah, humbug indeed.

Soccer - Littlewoods Challenge Cup - Round Two - Second Leg - Arsenal v Hull City - Highbury
Hull keeper Tony Norman would be an imminent arrival
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images
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