For a team that had narrowly been relegated from the top flight the season before, and were one of the favourites for promotion heading into the new campaign, the 1991-92 season got off to a rather indifferent start.
Two wins, two draws and three defeats from our first seven games left us in 15th position, and the 5-3 away defeat to Swindon a few days earlier had prompted calls from supporters for the pack to be shuffled.
The team generally was struggling for form, and typically it was some of the bigger names that were coming under the microscope. Marco Gabbiadini and Tony Norman had had – by their standards – poor starts to the season, and as we prepared for a midweek fixture against Charlton Athletic at their temporary home of Upton Park, Denis Smith gave both of them his full backing.
He told The Journal:
Marco Gabbiadini hasn’t been playing as well as he can, but he scored a goal at Swindon which might give him a spark. I won’t name my team until after Tuesday afternoon’s training session, but at this stage, Gabbiadini certainly figures in my plans.
Tony Norman cost us a couple of goals at Swindon. But, having said that, Tim Carter gave away a couple of soft goals in his last reserve game. Norman will play at Charlton.
The results are disappointing, but it’s my job to sort out what is going wrong.
We have to keep going. I thought we played reasonably well at Swindon, but I can’t legislate for people missing chances or Tony Norman making mistakes.
There is no panic at the club. We ill sort things out in a calm fashion.
He was right not to panic, heading into the Charlton game. Peter Davenport was recalled in place of Brian Atkinson in the one change to the side that had lost at the Country Ground.
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, Ball, Hardyman, Owers, Bracewell, Armstong, Pascoe, Davenport, Gabbiadini. Subs Hauser, Ord.
Sunderland took a welcome lead early in proceedings against a Charlton team under the dual management of Steve Gritt and Alan Curbishley. Gary Owers, who had been sent off against Swindon, scored from the spot in the 12th minute after Charlton defender Steve Gatting – brother of England cricketer Mike – brought down Colin Pascoe.
The decision didn’t come with the full agreement of the home crowd but Owers, unperturbed, slotted the ball low to the right of former Sunderland keeper Bob Bolder.
The lead was short-lived, however. Charlton defender Simon Webster headed home unchallenged to equalise moments later. Tony Norman was nowhere to be seen, and the referee adjudged the ball had crossed the line, although it looked hugely debatable.
A Paul Bracewell rocket that cannoned off the crossbar was the closest Sunderland came in the first half to reclaiming the lead – but the game turned on its head within seven minutes of the second half.
Seconds after the restart, Marco stabbed in from close range following a goalmouth scramble, and moments later he got his second of the game.
Picking the ball up in the inside left position – something of a trademark for Gabbiadini – he drove towards goal and put the ball home for Sunderland’s third.
The watching Liverpool manager Graeme Souness, who was scouting Gabbiadini, can’t have failed to have been impressed.
Moments later, the hat-trick and Sunderland’s victory was complete, Gabbiadini skillfully turning onto an Owers header to fire in from 12 yards out.
After only two goals in the first seven games, Gabbiadini had firmly returned to the goal trail. “Marco is back” sang the travelling Sunderland fans, celebrating a second away win of the season.
After the game, Smith said:
I have taken a lot of stick from fans and the media for not dropping Gabbiadini. I was close to it, but my perseverance with him paid off.
He hasn’t been back to his normal self, but he was back to his best at Upton Park. He took all three goals superbly.
However, Smith panicked rather than persevered over the following week or two.
Gabbiadini’s third goal against Charlton was the last of his 87 for the club. The following Saturday he was withdrawn through injury at halftime in a home defeat against Grimsby (Shaun Cunnington grabbing a late winner for the away side), and a few days later he was suddenly sold to Crystal Palace – who were looking for a replacement for Arsenal-bound Ian Wright – for £1.8m.
This prompted wholesale changes at the club – Don Goodman, John Byrne and Anton Rogan were brought into the team with the money from Gabbiadini’s sale but, despite all three being good players individually, the team didn’t click as Smith would have hoped.
Ultimately, Gabbiadini’s sale was the beginning of the end for Denis, who was sacked to the first strains of Auld Lang Syne. And, despite the cup run that followed, the club suffered until Peter Reid arrived four years later.