Twenty-eight years ago today, Gary Bennett celebrated the beginning of his testimonial season as Glasgow Rangers came to town for a game that was remembered as much for the off-field action as the on-field activity.
Terry Butcher’s side went down 3-1 to his former team: Lee Howey opening the scoring before an equaliser from David Hagen (playing instead of the injured Ally McCoist, who’d made the journey down for the game, regardless) and a brace from former England striker Mark Hateley gave Rangers the victory.
The game itself was wonderfully recalled by Andrew Cockburn in an article we published a few months ago, and from my memory, two things of note stand out. The first, how utterly unplayable Mark Hateley was. This was the first time I’d ever seen him play in the flesh, and he dominated our defence – Benno included. He seemed to have everything that day – he was strong, quick, mobile. He was supreme in the air, and he could certainly finish. It was as if someone had pieced together the perfect striker.
The second was the performance of Derek Ferguson, one of Butcher’s summer signings. The former Rangers player had been signed from Hearts, and put in the type of performance you dream of from someone ‘running the midfield’. He sat deep, spraying the ball about with aplomb, winning it back tenaciously, and seemed to be the linchpin we could build the team around.
Unfortunately, his Sunderland career peaked with that performance; never again did he even remotely look capable of running a game.
I digress. We were all there for Benno, of course, and to recognise his contribution to Sunderland since his arrival from Cardiff in the summer of 1984.
Benno was a trailblazer. After all, in the early 80s there wasn’t a huge number of black players in football, never mind in the north east. Roly Gregoire paved the way in the late 70s, but Benno – and Howard Gayle, who was signed during the same summer – were our first black players who became first-team regulars.
In his excellent book, The Black Cat – Gary Bennett’s Football Scrapbook – Bennett recalls his first encounter with supporters at Sunderland, after his former Cardiff manager Len Ashurst had signed him for Sunderland.
Barry [Batey, director] and I were heading towards the players’ entrance when a small group of youngsters approached us and asked: ‘Who’s this then Barry?’ When Barry pointed out that I was Gary Bennett, the club’s new signing from Cardiff City, one of the kids replied: ‘But he’s black!’
A small incident, maybe, but a clear indication that I might not be accepted by the Sunderland fans in quite the same way as I had been at Manchester and Cardiff.
Contrary to the modern game, the general attitude towards black players in those days was appalling, nothing short of disgusting. However, having grown up in a strong, black community in Manchester, I was largely protected from any real problems of racial abuse and at both of my previous clubs, there had been a strong black presence in the dressing room. At Roker Park, it was different. I was on my own and on that very first day, I have to confess feeling very exposed in a town that, as far as I could see, had very few black people.
Benno, of course, got off to the best possible start in a Sunderland shirt – scoring within minutes of his debut – firing in from close range past Southampton’s Peter Shilton in the Roker End. There’s no better way to introduce yourself.
By the time I started going to Roker Park regularly in the mid-80s, Benno was a fixture in the team. Our captain. A leader. Someone who had the respect of the crowd, and a bloody good player to boot.
As Gary himself noted in his comments upon joining Sunderland, there weren’t many black people around the north east in general in those days, and Benno was a genuine role model.
Racism was significantly worse then than it is today, but two exchanges at Roker will always stay with me. One, when one fella shouted racial abuse in the direction of an opposition player, the chap next to him said, ‘Cut that crap out man, Benno wouldn’t like it.’
The second was when Benno, coming out from defence with the ball, was scythed down by an Oxford forward, an old boy next to me leant over and screamed, ‘**** off you white ******, get off our Gary’ in the direction of the offender.
It generated a laugh in the Main Stand paddock that day, anyway.
While those hair-raising forward runs may have caused managers a heart attack or two, they were certainly enjoyed by the supporters. Bennett was a genuine crowd favourite, who wore his heart on his sleeve and would always, always give it his all.
Stand out moments, of course, are remembered fondly. His goal against Gillingham, throwing David Speedie into the paddock, and his winner against Manchester United will live forever in the minds of people who were fortunate enough to witness them.
Bennett left Sunderland shortly after Peter Reid took charge. He played in Reidy’s first three games before departing the game at home to Luton with an injury and didn’t play for the club again. In hindsight, it was a symbolic changing of the guard, as Reid ushered in a new era.
After 11 years at Roker, Benno went to Carlisle and then Scarborough and Darlington, where went on to form a managerial partnership with Jimmy Montgomery.
Since 2003, together with Nick Barnes, Gary has been a familiar voice on Radio Newcastle –the duo setting the bar for Sunderland commentary – and he has also been heavily involved in Show Racism the Red Card for the past 25 years or so.
Benno’s a genuine Sunderland legend – a hero, and part of the fabric of Sunderland Association Football Club.
When Bennett signed for Sunderland, we had to fight off interest from Crystal Palace. Benno was impressed with Ron Noades, the Palace chairman, and manager Steve Coppell – however, the prospect of playing top-flight football with Sunderland held greater appeal.
The stumbling block was the fee - Sunderland couldn’t afford to meet Cardiff’s asking price, Palace could. In those days out of contract players still commanded a fee – and if one couldn’t be agreed, it went to a tribunal.
Bennett was told that if the tribunal set the fee too high, Sunderland would have to pull out of the deal.
It was a risk, without a doubt, but the prospect of playing in the top flight and teaming up with a manager [Len Ashurst] who I rated so highly became the deciding factor.
In life, you often reach crossroads when a decision can take your future in a certain direction and had I signed for Palace that day my life would have changed completely.
Apart from missing out on my playing career with Sunderland, I almost certainly wouldn’t have met my wife and settled into a city that I love and now regard as my home.
Overall, Gary Bennett played 443 times for Sunderland – only nine of those from the bench – and scored 25 goals.
I still reckon this one’s the best.