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Mark Chamberlain of England

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On This Day (21 May 1988): Sunderland manager targets international trio

After dragging the club out of the Third Division at the first attempt, Denis Smith turned his attentions to strengthening the squad.

After securing promotion from Division Three, Denis Smith wasted no time in establishing plans for a second consecutive promotion push.

The team he’d managed to the summit of the third tier was primarily comprised of players he’d inherited. Only John Kay, John MacPhail and Marco Gabbiadini had been key components of the team, the deadline day addition of Colin Pascoe adding some attacking flair.

Veteran Eric Gates had – perhaps unexpectedly – ended up playing a key role in the team, while the likes of Steve Doyle, Frank Gray, Paul Lemon and John Cornforth had perhaps played more first-team football than Smith had envisaged.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Leeds United Photocall
Former Leeds player Frank Gray had played more football than Smith had intended - appearing in 37 games
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

So, only a week or so after signing off for the season, Smith’s rebuilding plans began. He wanted to go for promotion the following season, he’d made that abundantly clear in the press: he didn’t see the point in getting promoted to Division Two to make up the numbers. As far as he was concerned, his job hadn’t been to get us out of Division Three, it was to get us back to Division One.

Early on during that close season, Smith was targeting three players who were all internationally capped and in the prime of their careers.

First up was Sheffield Wednesday winger Mark Chamberlain, who Smith had unsuccessfully tried to get on loan towards the end of the 87-88 season. Smith had known Chamberlain as a young lad coming through at Stoke. Fast, tricky and direct, Chamberlain – father of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain –had rejected Wednesday manager Howard Wilkinson’s offer of a new contract, and Smith had renewed his interest. The reported asking price of £300,000, however, was rumoured to be a stumbling point.

Mark Chamberlain of England
Chamberlain played 8 times for England

Next up was a former Sunderland player, Nick Pickering. Pickering, 24, who was at Coventry, had played over 200 games for Sunderland before leaving the club to join the Sky Blues two years earlier, and was interested in a return. The once-capped England player turned down a Roker return around deadline day, saying he was reluctant to drop into Division Three, but would be very interested in a return should the club get promoted.

Soccer - FA Cup - Final - Tottenham Hotspur v Coventry City - Wembley Stadium
Pickering (right) had won the FA Cup with Coventry in 1987
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Finally, the third player linked with a move to Roker was QPR’s 27-year-old Republic of Ireland international, John Byrne. Smith had managed Byrne at York City, and saw him as the ideal foil for Marco Gabbiadini. While 33-year-old Eric Gates had played superbly well alongside Gabbiadini, Smith was looking longer-term, and desperately wanted Byrne to join the club.

John Byrne of Queens Park Rangers
QPR’s Byrne joined Le Havre that summer after a move to Roker didn’t eventuate

Unfortunately for Smith – and in hindsight, for us – none of those signings came off. Nick Pickering ended up joining Derby, where he spent three seasons before, aged 28, joining Darlington.

Byrne, of course, ended up at Roker three years later at the third time of asking, via Le Havre and Brighton (Smith tried to sign him again before landing Middlesbrough’s Peter Davenport), while Mark Chamberlain joined second division rivals Portsmouth, for whom he played almost 200 games.

As it turned out, Smith struggled to sign anyone that summer. His ambition for a second promotion wasn’t matched by chairman Bob Murray, who failed to back his manager in the transfer market.

Smith was unable to make any first-team signings that summer, journeyman striker Billy Whitehurst arriving from Reading in September for £80,000 to partner Marco, before being used in part exchange for Hull City’s Tony Norman in December.

It was a quiet pre-season at Roker Park. And, after the turbulence of the previous few seasons, it was probably just what everyone needed.

Soccer - Barclay’s League Division One - Sheffield United v Leeds United
Billy Whitehurst arrived to provide an alternative up front to Eric Gates
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

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