The build up
In the summer of 1985, Eric Gates was one of a number of big-name signings to arrive at Roker Park as part of Lawrie McMenemy’s ill-fated attempt to replicate his success at Southampton.
Eric Gates had turned down Jack Charlton’s first division Newcastle in favour of the move to Roker, but hadn’t hit the heights expected of a 30-year-old former England player who’d never before played outside of the top flight. Paired mainly with Dave Swindlehurst, Gates had struggled to hit form – but he wasn’t alone.
Fast forward two years and the now 32-year-old was facing the prospect of playing Division Three football – not exactly the swansong he wanted.
He started the season in the team, paired upfront with Keith Bertschin, but had failed to score a league goal by the latter stages of September he’d failed to score a league goal, the team were sitting 10th in the league and a young striker by the name of Marco Gabbiadini had been signed – in all reality – to replace him.
Football’s full of twists of fates, however, and an injury to Bertschin in Gabbiadini’s second game offered Gates a route back into the team. Rather than the big man/little man combo that Smith evidently was intending, he was forced to go with a little man/littler man duo – and it reaped its rewards.
By the time late April came around, we were flying. Of course, there’d been bumps in the road – away defeats at Aldershot, Bristol Rovers and York caused consternation – but when all told Smith had built a talented, strong-minded, effective side that was relentless in the pursuit of its goal.
He’d used the players he’d inherited effectively – Hesford, Gray, Agboola, Bennett and Doyle, as well as Gates, had been pivotal, while his signings Kay, MacPhail and, of course, Gabbiadini, had all been important regular players.
We headed to Vale Park knowing a win would guarantee promotion, and potentially the championship, depending on results elsewhere.
Sunderland went into the match at full strength, off the back of a 4-0 away win at Mansfield. Reuben Agboola and John Cornforth passed late fitness tests to take their place on the bench.
Sunderland: Hesford, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Gray, Lemon, Armstrong, Doyle, Pascoe, Gates, Gabbiadini. Subs Cornforth, Agboola.
From the first minute, Sunderland played with the swagger of a team that was destined for greater things. Pace, power and passion were in evidence from the off against a team who’d only lost two of their last 21 home games.
Mark Grew in the Vale goal pulled off save after save, preventing Sunderland from winning at an absolute canter.
And it looked as though the game could be heading for a draw before, with 12 minutes remaining, Armstrong’s corner was headed on by Gabbiadini. The ball dropped to Gates, with his back to goal. He swiveled and stabbed the ball past Grew.
Cue delirium in the stands.
Sunderland managed to see the game out, and promotion – at the first time of asking – had been confirmed.
As Brian McNally in The Journal wrote:
An explosion of relief could be felt all around the ground as the Roker faithful realised their Third Division nightmare was at last over.
The Sunderland fans stood singing and dancing on the terraces for fully 20 minutes after the final whistle and it was quite clear who they were paying homage to.
Denis Smith was the name loudest on the lips of the delierious Roker army and the Sunderland boss had to make two appearances before the fans would take their celebrations back to Wearside.
After securing promotion, Sunderland clinched the championship only two days later with a Bank Holiday win over Northampton Town, which attracted the North East’s biggest crowd of the season, despite the two other teams playing top-flight football.
On arriving at Roker, Denis Smith had promised promotion, and he’d delivered. He saved himself £10,000 in the process, too.
When negotiating to take over at Sunderland, there’d been some reluctance on the part of the famously tight Bob Murray to pay Smith’s compensation to York. Smith said that, if he didn’t get Sunderland up within two seasons, he’d pay Murray half of it back himself.
I never thought my money was in any real danger, I was always confident of taking Sunderland up, That’s why I was willing to back by promotion prediction with the cash pledge.
In fact, the Monday before the Port Vale game - prior to promotion being secured – Smith had said he’d expect to get promoted to the First Division next season.
Smith’s brash, aggressive style has done down well with Sunderland fans and there hasn’t been a rapport like this between manager and supporters since the heady Bob Stokoe days of 1973.
The coal miner’s son from a tough Stoke council estate speaks the same language as the fans. Winning is all that he wants to talk about, Smith has no time for five year plans and the other pleas for patience which have regularly been heard from Sunderland managers.
He knows the supporters are sick of failure.
The fact that an outfit of Sunderland’s stature last won the First Division title in 1936 speaks volumes of how the club has been run since the war.
Smith is determined that Sunderland will soon be rubbing shoulders with the First Division elite, and I sensed on Saturday afternoon that the fans believe totally in his ability to take the club right to the top.
And, just over two years later, we were back in the First Division, with a nucleus of players who’d triumphed at Port Vale – missing Gates, however, who decided at 35 he was too old for a First Division finale, and travelled west to join Carlisle.
In hindsight, he should have stayed.