For all the ‘G-Force’ has gone down in Sunderland history, Denis Smith never seemed overly confident in the Gates-Gabbiadini combo. Maybe it was former England international Gates’ age. Maybe he thought we needed a ‘big man’ upfront with Marco.
Gates was never intended to be Marco’s strike partner in the first place; that was envisaged to be Keith Bertschin. He, unfortunately, got crocked in Gabbiadini’s second game and couldn’t get back into the team after Gates and Gabbiadini really hit it off.
Which made it all the more strange that, early on in the 1988-89 season, Smith signed Billy Whitehurst and paired him with Marco; Gates relegated to the bench.
Whitehurst would have stayed longer at Sunderland had Hull not wanted him in part exchange for Tony Norman, but soon after Smith signed another tall forward in the shape of Thomas Hauser.
The striker played a bit-part role that season, and suffered an injury-plagued couple of years which saw him make only 11 league starts in two seasons, although in one of them he (allegedly) become the first German to score a top-flight goal in England.
After relegation in 1991, Smith saw a Hauser-Gabbiadini partnership as the one that would fire the club back up the league. Peter Davenport, signed as Gates’ replacement the previous year, had done OK, but the partnership rarely lived up to its potential.
After a 1-1 opening day home draw with Derby, which saw Gabbiadini up front with Colin Pascoe, Smith put Hauser into the number nine shirt. An impressive 3-0 away win at Barnsley was followed by a 4-1 reverse at Millwall and a 2-0 home win against Oxford. In the latter game, Marco scored his first of the season – in fact, it was the first goal any striker had scored for us that season.
Marco was never one to hide his feelings on the field, and it was evident during the Oxford game that he just wasn’t clicking with big Thomas. There wasn’t a natural synergy between the two. They just didn’t look compatible.
Denis Smith thought differently though, and before a game against Portsmouth on this day 30 years ago, he reaffirmed that belief to The Journal’s Jeff Brown.
They have got to the stage where they daren’t even look at each other during a match because people will say it’s a nasty look.
They are worrying more about the talk of their supposed disagreement than getting on with their jobs.
I wouldn’t be playing them together if I didn’t think there were up to it.
The only way I can find out if they can work together is by giving their partnership a fair chance.
As it turned out, Smith’s ‘fair chance’ lasted only 180 minutes.
Sunderland went down 1-0 at Fratton Park with Hauser and Gabbiadini up front, and followed up with a 1-1 home draw to Blackburn – Brian Atkinson on the scoresheet.
The following week – for an away game at Swindon – Hauser was dropped, and a couple of games later, Gabbiadini was sold to Crystal Palace.
The Blackburn game was Hauser’s last start for Sunderland – and he barely featured after that. He made his final appearance for the club off the bench in a Boxing Day defeat away to Tranmere – Denis Smith’s second last game in charge.