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On This Day (26 August 1986): Denis Smith and Marco Gabbiadini show Sunderland how it’s done!

Denis Smith’s York City travelled to Roker Park on this day 35 years ago to face Lawrie McMenemy’s Sunderland side in the Littlewoods Cup.

Sir Tom Cowie had pulled out all the sops to attract Lawrie McMenemy to become Sunderland’s manager in the summer of 1985. He came with a solid reputation after his work at Southampton and the choice for him to replace Len Ashurst was universally praised as we were relegated from the top flight in May 1985.

For our mission to return immediately to the First Division, McMenemy clearly tried to recreate the type of squad he had built at Southampton, where players with experience were brought into the club.

Frank Gray (Leeds United for £175,000), Bob Bolder (Liverpool for £100,000), Eric Gates (£150,000 from Ipswich Town), Alan Kennedy (Liverpool for £100,000), Dave Swindlehurst (West Ham United for £80,000) and George Burley (Ipswich Town for £50,000) were all signed in a spending spree that was probably the biggest in the club's history.

But fast forward to May 1986, Lawrie McMenemy found himself on the Roker Park pitch making a gesture to crowd, and rather than it be a part of celebrating promotion back to Division One, he was waving a white hanky to apologise after finishing 18th and only surviving the drop on the final day of the season.

It was probably more to do with financial reasons than footballing reasons that McMenemy was allowed to go again into the 1986-87 season and have a second attempt at the Second Division. This time around the purse strings were tightened by the chairman and only Ian Hesford and Dave Buchanan were added to the squad ahead of the opening day of the season.

Both new signings found themselves in the starting line-up as we kicked off the new season away to Mick Buxon’s Huddersfield Town at Leeds Road. Huddersfield had finished two points and two places above Sunderland the year before and after a 2-0 win for the Lads through goals from Frank Gray and Dave Swindlehurst, things looked positive.

By a quirk of the schedule, our first home game of the season that came only three days later wasn’t another Division Two fixture - it came in the form of York City in Littlewoods Challenge Cup first-round tie at Roker Park.

Denis Smith was the man in charge at Bootham Cresent and had been since 1982. After gaining promotion to the Third Division in only his second full season (where they were the first club in the Football League to accumulate over 100 points) they firmly established themselves at the next level with successive top-ten finishes.

Football. Under 21s International. 12th October 1982. England v West Germany, Second Leg. England goalkeeper Ian Hesford during a training session.
Ian Hesford was our major signing in the summer of 1986
Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

The impressive league form also ran parallel with giant-killing exploits in cup competitions with impressive results against Arsenal and Liverpool, which they went on to display when five minutes into the second half, Denis Smith’s side were three up.

The 9,162 didn’t stay silent in venting their feelings towards the players on the pitch and the manager in the dugout. Booing rang down from the half-full terraces as the team looked completely shellshocked on the pitch.

The architect of the night's proceedings was Tony Canham who Denis Smith found plying his trade for part-time Harrogate Railway before unleashing him on the Third Division, and any unsuspecting higher division sides such as ourselves in ties such as this one.

And if Canham was the architect, then Keith Walwyn was the executioner. The 25-year-old was a typical old-fashioned centre forward, big, powerful and he knew where the goal was - as proven by scoring 29 goals in Division Three the previous year.

Keith Walwyn

Canham was behind everything going forward for York, where he gave George Burley a torrid time down the left-hand side for the visitors, but it was Simon Mills who opened the scoring after around quarter of an hour after good work winning the ball back from a certain Ricky Sbragia in the York defence.

The ball found its way to Mills via Gary Ford, who steered the ball into the far corner beyond the reaches of young Cameron Duncan in the Sunderland goal.

After that, the ‘Canham and Walwyn’ show got started as the winger left Burley in his wake on the flank to perfectly find Walwyn who nodded home to double the lead after 35 minutes on the clock.

At half-time, Denis Smith made a change that saw Gary Ford on the right of York City’s midfield be replaced by a young unknown 18-year-old from Nottingham. His name was Marco Gabbiadini, and it was his first experience of the Roker Park crowd, although hopefully he carries more positive memories around with him from a Sunderland perspective.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland
On this day 35 years ago was Marco Gabbiadini’s first experience of Roker Park - but not as a Sunderland player
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

The second half started as the first left off, the visitors looked like the side more likely to score next and probably should have done when only a couple of minutes after the restart, Walwyn missed a golden opportunity to grab his second of the game but Duncan was brave in getting down to Walwyn’s feet and smother the chance.

The reprieve would only last a few more moments when that man Canham again went off on a mazy run and found Walwyn who this time finished with a delicate flick whilst on the run.

Hope was restored after Sunderland scored two in the fifteen minutes after Walwyn’s second goal. The first coming from new signing Dave Buchanan, who had joined from Blyth Spartans, with a smart header and Eric Gates got the second after Paul Lemon did his best to defend the York City goal by blocking his initial shot.

But in the final moments of the game, Keith Walwyn completed a deserved hattrick after he rounded Cameron Duncan and rifled home to complete a 4-2 victory for Denis Smith’s side and it was no more than they deserved as Lawrie McMenemy attempted to explain following the final whistle.

York fully deserved their victory. Naturally I am very disappointed and their fourth goal at the end probably puts it into perspective. You have to compete better in cup-ties and on a night like tonight we missed Steve Hetzke badly.

The conditions were the same for both sides. I would have been happy at 3-2. The fourth goal left a nasty taste. It was a Jekyll and Hyde performance from us especially after doing so well on Saturday.

Lawrie McMenemy

Denis Smith sang his praises for his side, but also spoke about his star man of the night.

We play every game like that. We always attack away from home. Sunderland have an awful lot of potential and obviously the tie is not over yet. The North-East is a breeding ground for good centre forwards and the crowd certainly saw one tonight in Keith Walwyn.

Denis Smith

It was possible that this performance stuck in a few people’s minds when it was time for the club to go in a different direction the following summer. In that case we can put this result and pretty terrible night down to being good for our longer term future.

Sunderland 2-4 York City

(Buchanan 55’, Gates 67’ - Mills 17’, Walwyn 36’, 51’, 89’)

Sunderland: Duncan, Burley, Agboola, Bennett, Gray, Lemon, P. Atkinson (Armstrong), Proctor, Buchanan, Swindlehurst, Gates Substitute not used: Kennedy

York City: Leaning, Senior, Hood, Sbragia, Pickering, Haslegrave, Ford (Gabbiadini), Banton, Canham, Walwyn, Mills Substitute not used: McAughtrie

Attendance: 9,162


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