Third division Sunderland had started their attempt to bounce back to the second tier at the first attempt well, winning three of their first four fixtures, but then slumped to a run of three draws followed by a 3-1 loss away at Brighton and Hove Albion. It was clear that this vital promotion campaign going to be no picnic.
Denis Smith recognised that we had issues in the forward line, and responded by bringing in a young lad he knew from his time in charge of York City; one Marco Gabbiadini, for a fee of £80,000. The 19-year-old had scored 14 goals in his two seasons at Bootham Crescent and would go on to have a massive impact on the Roker Park club, with 87 goals in 185 appearances.
His debut, however, was by no means indicative of the success he would later have leading the line in two promotion-winning Sunderland sides, as we slipped to an awful home defeat to now-defunct Chester City FC.
Sunderland started the game well, with another pacey forward - Paul Atkinson - having a spectacular strike from outside the area ruled out after only four minutes. These days it would have counted, but an inactive attacker was flagged offside to cancel out the goal.
From that point onwards, Chester were determined to make the game as scrappy and disjointed as possible, with a series of fouls which both broke up our flow and left their mark on our players. Captain Gary Bennett and fellow defender Reuben Aboola were both injured by tackles from Chester’s hardmen, and the damage done to Agboola proved decisive in the story of the game.
Having felt the force of a strong challenge, fullback Agboola was suffering with his hamstring and was just about to be substituted before his weak header led to the visitors' first goal, with Stuart Rimmer nipping in to score on 64 minutes.
Marco did come closest to scoring for Sunderland when he hit the post with a header in the 69th minute, a moment that proved pivotal, as he commented after the game:
I thought it was going in, but I fell back when heading it and when I got up the ball was back in the keeper’s arms. It’s a pity because a goal then would have lifted us. It’s a dissapointing way to start, but I’ll need a game or two to get used to the rest of the lads.
Five Chester players saw yellow over the 90 minutes, with only John Kay picking up a booking for the home side. They sealed their win with a second goal on 85 minutes, in a game held in front of 12,000 fans at Roker Park that saw the Lads drop to 12th place in the league - a new low in our rankings in English football.
Denis Smith bemoaned the fact that Chester’s game was largely based on fouling and injuring our players, and that suggested they’d effectively robbed three points, but remained confident that we’d go up in his post-match comments, as reported by Jeff Brown in the following Monday’s Journal.
Judge us come next may. Only then will we know whether we are right or wrong. [The game] was a farce when you consider how much of the game we had, they came for a draw and went away with a win. We spent 90 minutes chasing around trying to make a game of it, and we’ve got nothing to show.
Everyone will make a song and dance about the fact that we lost, but if it was a boxing match it would have been stopped. We got caught with a counter punch.
They had five players booked, kicked everything above the grass, and if we continue to meet sides like that we’ll be lucked to have a team by Christmas.
However, this game preceded a run of six straight victories, and we went on to win the league at a canter with the G-force at the fore. You can read all about the game in which Smith discovered that classic partnership that in this feature from the Roker Report Archives.