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Sunderland AFC’s greatest ever strikers: Part Two

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There’s a boatload of goals between these star names from Sunderland’s striking history.

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During Kelvin’s walk in the rain between Ushaw Moor and Esh Winning, he found himself lost in the world of Sunderland’s greatest ever strikers. This may or may not have contributed to him walking slightly off course.

In yesterday’s part one, Kelvin reminisced about names such as Bobby Gurney, Brian Clough and David Halliday – which of our goalscoring heroes are in his (rain-drenched) sights today?


Neil Martin

Martin arrived at Sunderland in the same season as fellow Scot Jim Baxter, 1965/66. In many respects, Baxter hogged the headlines (sometimes for all the wrong reasons) but Martin was a coup that we never quite realised. A lithe six foot he had arrived from Hibernian where he had scored 53 goals in 65 games for Jock Stein’s side. He had broken into the Scottish national side as well, having been a regular scorer for the Scottish Under 23 team. Martin had also been selected for the Scottish League against the English league at Roker Park in 1964, where he and Baxter played and he scored, though Baxter took all the plaudits with a typically gallus performance against his favourite opposition England.

I watched Martin play in my first season at Roker and up until his departure in early 1968. I remember having my very first football-related strop over his transfer, and being put to my bedroom for fighting with an older Newcastle-supporting neighbour because he was laughing about the transfer!

Soccer - Football League Division One - West Ham United v Sunderland
Neil Martin, Sunderland
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

Martin was a battler and shied away from no one at a time when every team had cloggers, enforcers and hard men. He scored all sorts of goals, though was a danger in the air and the box from corners and free kicks. I realised when slightly older that I had really liked his clever forward play and ability to lay the ball off under pressure. I am sure he would have benefitted from a regular strike partner – Nick Sharkey could have been that player, but Sharkey was a catholic and not played regularly by manager Ian McColl amidst allegations of a protestant bias at the club at this time. McColl did try and play another Scot, John O’Hare, with Martin, but despite having many attributes O’Hare was not the natural goal scorer that might have realised Martin’s full potential for Sunderland.

Martin’s record of 46 goals in 99 appearances for the club was more than respectable when you consider what was going on behind the scenes at the time. In 66/67 he scored 26 goals for the Lads, little did we realise it would be 11 years before a Sunderland forward would score more than 20 league goals in a season again (but more on him later). Martin collected the last of his three Scotland caps alongside Baxter in a 1-0 World Cup qualifier victory over Italy in front of 100,000 at Hampden in 1965. His strike partner for two of his caps was Denis Law and for the last cap was Alan Gilzean. Martin is one of a small band of players who have scored over 100 goals in both the top-flight English and Scottish leagues. He was sold for twice the amount we paid for him in 1968 and whilst the club might have regarded it as good business at the time, I thought then – and still do now – that it was short-sighted and an opportunity missed. Neil Martin would always make my top 10 Sunderland strikers.


Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson

Pop is one of that rare breed of players who have made the successful transition from Newcastle to Sunderland (albeit via West Ham) – probably no surprise given that he was born within spitting distance of Roker Park in 1945.

It was 1974/75 season when I got my first close look at Robson. He was our leading scorer that season with 19 league goals as we looked to get out of the old second division (failing painfully at the final hurdle). With Watson and Moncur in defence and Tony Towers in his pomp alongside Kerr, Hughes, Halom and Joe Bolton (who played in midfield for much of that season), we were entertaining and for the most part effective in front of very healthy home attendances.

Pop was all movement and guile. I loved his deceptive pace and balance, he was a right nuisance in the box, often ghosting in to nick the ball or distracting defenders with his mobility. I would love to know what the assists stats for his career are, but I am guessing we were not bean-counting this kind of thing back then!

Robson, despite his balding appearance, had an almost ballet dancer’s grace on the pitch, which also belied his low centre of gravity and toughness in possession. An inside forward of the old school, a number 10 of the new school, I loved him and would love to see a talent like him come through today.

Soccer - League Division Two - Millwall v Sunderland -
Sunderland’s Bryan Pop Robson (c) watches as teammate Bobby Kerr (l) takes the ball round Millwall goalkeeper Bryan King to give the visitors the lead at The Den
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

For the record, he had three separate stints with us as a player scoring 67 goals in 164 appearances. He followed up his 19 league goals in 1974/75 with 16 goals in all competitions in our promotion-winning 1975/76 season. He repeated his 20-plus goal haul in our promotion-winning season of 1979/80 in a team that did not really have an out and out established centre forward. Arnott, Brown and Cummins added another 30 goals between them.

He scored his last goal for us in 1983/84 season as player-coach on the final day of the season at Leicester to clinch an unlikely 13th place finish in the first division and become our oldest player at almost 39 years old to score in a league match. He went on to serve the club as Community Officer, Assistant Coach and Director of Youth, in a long association with Sunderland.

One of the most interesting things I heard about Pop was that in the close season as a player he practised ballroom dancing with his in-laws Lenny and Molly Heppell and played table tennis with his wife Maureen – who was an international table tennis player – to improve his balance and agility. I can hear and see LJ and the backroom team rushing to Amazon to purchase ping pong tables and pulling out the vinyl samba and bosa nova music as I write.......no stone unturned eh!


Gary Rowell

“We all live in a Gary Rowell World” goes the chant, and anyone who saw his hattrick at St James in 1979 will vouch for that world being one of delight and pleasure as the goals slide elegantly into the back of the net. Rowell was one of our own and he along with others such as Arnott, Bolton, Ashurst, Henderson, Elliott, Hindmarch, Chisholm and Gilbert were the bright young things that were going to build upon 1973 and take Sunderland forward. Injury and a managerial merry-go-round would ensure there was not so much going forward, but I tell you what, I am glad I got to see this lad play and always wondered why a bigger club did not come in for him!

It can be hard to describe Rowell’s playing style to those who did not see him play. He did not have searing pace, but often ghosted past defenders. He was not a tall lad but often got a decisive touch with his head. He had a deceptive physical presence and could hold the ball up against bigger/ stronger players, often drawing a foul in an era where blood had to be spilt to be awarded a free-kick. He could bring the ball under control and quickly move it on. He was a very good passer of the ball. What I really liked about Rowell was his positional sense and ability to be in the right place at just the right moment, especially for Kevin Arnott who seemed to have his radar set to Rowell at times.

Soccer - League Division Two - Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland - White Hart Lane Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

He was not an out-and-out centre forward but could lead the line. He could play and was played in midfield at times … I guess you could say, like Pop Robson the withdrawn/10 role would maybe sum him up best and, like Pop Robson, Rowell’s assist stats would have been impressive if anyone had been counting back then. It was a dream to watch Rowell, Arnott, Bolton, Elliott et al on the pitch together. Throw in the older experienced homegrown talent of Monty, Kerr and Hughes, add a bit of Porterfield, Rostron, Robson and Stan Cummins... and that was when I realised I was lost and not a clue where I had walked to!

If you were at Wembley in 1985 when Rowell bought the league cup over to the Sunderland fans (as an injured Norwich player) and saw the emotion on his face... you will probably agree, one of our own is no idle label in his case.

I saw Gary Rowell make his debut as a substitute in December 1975 against Oxford in a 1-0 victory. He would play for us from 1975 till 1984 and scored 102 goals in 266 appearances, he was our top goalscorer on no fewer than six seasons in his career with us and is one of only two post-war players to score more than 100 goals for the club. (Len Shackleton is the other.) It was Rowell in 1978/79 who would be the first player in 11 years, (since Neil Martin in 1966/67) to score 20 plus league goals. Rowell scored 21 league goals that season and might have scored more and taken us on to promotion, (which we just missed out on again) had he not incurred a medial ligament injury that sidelined him for the remainder of that term and a good part of the following season. A penalty taker extraordinaire and scorer of all kinds of goals, he made even the “squaffy ones” look elegant, arise Lord Rowell.

Soccer - Sunderland Association Football Club - Photocall - Roker Park
Gary Rowell, Sunderland
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Super Ally McCoist

I am guessing there will be some surprise at “Super Ally’s” inclusion in my top forwards list. After all, he only scored 9 goals for us in 46 appearances (19 as sub).

Sunderland’s new manager Alan Durban had beaten Boro, Wolves and Rangers to his signature in August 1981, spending £400,000 on the 19-year-old. McCoist had started his career as a midfielder before being moved forward and scoring 23 goals for St Johnstone in 1980/81, he was a hot prospect and we had signed him.

McCoist was not the only young player catching the eye at Roker and Durban seemed to be prepared to build a team around the likes of Pickering, Venison, West and McCoist. With Rowell, Elliott, Arnott, Hindmarch and Chisholm as homegrown experienced players and the experienced heads of Jeff Clarke, Mick Buckley, Stan Cummins, the newly acquired and tough tackling Iain Munro and one of my favourites Joe Hinnigan, I was quietly excited about what was happening and looking forward to seeing if Durban could get Tom Ritchie and McCoist firing upfront. What could go wrong?

Soccer - Football League Division One - Arsenal v Sunderland
Sold too soon – but Super Ally is still on Kelvin’s list of best Sunderland strikers
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Ritchie had been a right handful and consistent scorer against us in his time with Bristol City. The beanpole striker looked the perfect foil for McCoist, but failed to live up to expectations. Unknown to many supporters at the time, the relationship between allegedly tight-fisted chairman Tom Cowie and Durban never got any better than cool.

Injuries to key players also played their part over this period as Turner, Hinnigan, Clarke, Chisholm and Rowell all had telling periods on the treatment bench. Durban’s time at the club was another opportunity missed, he seemed to have us heading in the right direction, with a game plan and a long-term strategy. Cowie was reluctant to invest in this vision and the rest as they say is history. This was the backdrop to McCoist’s time at the club, we definitely did not see the best of Super Ally, who was transferred to Rangers for a cut-price £180,00 at the end of 1982/83. Many Rangers fans will tell you that this transfer was their best ever as he went on to be the club’s record scorer with 355 goals and a key part of their 9 in a row SPL winning squad.

Durban described McCoist’s time at Sunderland as “right player, wrong time”. I would certainly echo that. Anyone who witnessed his goal against Southampton and Peter Shilton at Roker in his first season would agree we had a player on our hands. I saw his backheel to Mick Buckley at Ipswich and his goal in the game at Man City at the start of the 1982/83 season and thought the future was bright!


Gates & Gabbiadini

The “G Force” were a joy to watch in full flow. Gates was all trickery, flicks and motion (he also knew how to draw a free kick), Gabbiadini was raw pace and power and knew how to bury the ball in the back of the net. They came together almost by happenstance in 1987/88 season as Denis Smith was attempting to plot our way out of a difficult division three. Gabbiadini was originally signed to partner Keith Bertschin. But an injury in Marco’s second game to his experienced strike partner saw him paired with Gates, who had suffered a bit from being cast as Lawrie McMenemy’s marquee signing. This pairing proved to be an inspiration.

Gates and Gabbers gelled and appeared to really enjoy playing with each other. Their assists, as well as goals, were a joy to witness as we played our way out of the third division all the way to the first, via a fortuitous promotion at Swindon’s expense.

The “G Force” was broken up as we headed into the first division in 1990/91. Maybe Eric Gates was feeling his 35 years of age. His last goal for us was scored at St James Park in the playoff semi-final, a night I will never forget and probably the “G Force’s” most memorable game for us.

Marco Gabbiadini
The G Force were never too far apart on the field
Photo by Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images

Gabbiadini did not look the same player to me without his strike partner as we started our top division campaign in 1990/91. Thomas Hauser was not quite gelling with Gabbers and although he looked a clever player in the Gates mould, Peter Davenport did not really gel either.

With Marco netting nine league goals that season and Davenport seven, relegation was confirmed at the final whistle of the last game of the season in a 3-2 defeat at Man City. Gabbiadini scored in this game and looked genuinely bereft at the finish as the huge Sunderland contingent (including myself) roared his name and swore undying loyalty despite our relegation. (Little did we realise that day, City’s manager Peter Reid and one of their goalscorer’ Niall Quinn were to play such a pivotal role in our future. I do remember Quinn applauding the support and Reid saying he had never heard or seen anything like it).

Eric Gates scored a total of 54 goals for us in 199 appearances and Marco Gabbiadini scored 87 goals in 183 appearances. Their haul of 40 goals between them in 1987/88 season was their best ever together. Marco went on to score over 20 plus in the following two seasons in all competitions with Gates as his foil.