Back in the day, even during the early years of the internet, Ceefax and Teletext were the places you headed to on numerous occasions during the day to see what the footy news was. Signings, managerial changes, rumours… it was all there on Ceefax page 302 or Teletext 401.
Ceefax page 312 – the news and gossip round up – was always my favourite, and if you wanted more the Clubcall advert pages tempted you further.
Sunderland: International keeper set to sign! Call 0898 121140, for the princely sum of 40p per minute or whatever it was. It must have been high, I remember my dad getting a ‘premium number block’ on our home phone after my SAFC obsession saw the phone bills skyrocketing.
Anyway, this reminiscence has a point, because 24 years ago, I distinctly remember coming back home, sticking on Teletext to see what football news I’d missed that day, and the main headline being:
Sunderland Sign Italian Star!
We were in our first season at the Stadium of Light, and beginning to pick up momentum – Quinny was back after injury, summer signing Kevin Phillips was looking like the steal of the century, and the brilliant Lee Clark was showing just what a quality central midfield player was all about.
Our wide, Allan Johnston and Nicky Summerbee, both relatively recent arrivals, were also displaying their class, and – sitting fourth in the table we were all hoping a new signing or two would continue to spur the lads on for an immediate Premier League return.
So, who was this new Italian arrival? The mind raced.
Paolo Maldini?! Christian Vieri?! Alessandro Del Piero?!
When the page loaded it revealed our new ‘Italian Star’ was none other than…
It took a few moments to put two and two together.
‘Danny Fuc*ing Dichio’?!
The lads who I was sharing a house with at the time – a mag, a Boro fan, two (Mancunian) Manchester United fans, a Liverpool fan and a Carlisle supporter – couldn’t help but piss themselves laughing at my face when the realisation dawned.
It’s probably the reason I never really liked Dichio when he was with us – I never took to him. His play-off final miss and then reluctance to take a penalty in the shoot-out compounded it.
Anyway, it was on this day 24 years ago, Dichio made his debut for Sunderland at Carrow Road in a fixture against Norwich City.
Norwich had beaten us at home early in the campaign, but we’d recovered well and, since the ‘nightmare at Elm Park’ – a 4-0 reversal against Reading on the first weekend in October – had gone 16 league games unbeaten, which had lifted us up to fourth in the table.
The previous Saturday, however, we’d been beaten by Tranmere at Prenton Park in the FA Cup (not the ‘extra player’ game, that was a couple of seasons later.
Captained by Clark, with Chris Makin filling in at left back in place of Micky Gray, who was deployed on the left wing; Allan Johnston was on the bench. Sunderland started the game brightly, zipping the ball around in the way they were well accustomed to doing.
Summerbee was denied by Bryan Gunn in the Norwich goal, before a brave save from Perez denied Norwich forward Coote.
Summerbee’s short was deflected over, Darren Williams headed wide when it seemed easier to score, Phillips shot over, Summerbee hit a free kick wide and Phillips forced Gunn into a great full length diving save with a shot from 30 yards… so it was no surprise that Norwich took the lead. And we were the architects of our own downfall.
Perez came out of his box to clear a through ball, but scuffed his kick to Darren Eadie, a talented player, who sent the ball back over Perez from all of 50 yards and into the back of the net.
Sunderland, who’d been on top, went in search of an immediate equaliser, but despite a lot of pressure couldn’t make the breakthrough.
Early in the second half, Coote miskicked in front of goal at one end, while Phillips headed Summerbee’s excellent cross wide – but it was Norwich that managed to extend their lead; and again Sunderland only had themselves to blame as Jody Craddock put the ball past his own keeper from close range from Fuglestad’s cross.
Sunderland immediately withdrew Niall Quinn and introduced new signing Dichio, and pushed for a way back into the game – but we were always vulnerable on the counter, and Norwich should have made it three shortly after – Coote’s header hit the post while an incredible goalmouth scramble saw the lads finally get the ball clear.
With six minutes remaining, Clark worked himself some space 25 yards out and blasted past the keeper – Gunn got a hand to it but the sheer venom of the strike meant he couldn’t keep it out.
Sunderland pushed for an equaliser, but couldn’t find a way through and we fell to our first league defeat for four months.
We bounced back well, however, winning our fixture the following Saturday 4-2 against Port Vale (the Quinny chip game).
We made a couple of mistakes for the goals and then we were chasing the game, it’s difficult when you’re chasing a game against a team like Norwich who’ve got Forbes and Eadie who’ve got pace. It was end to end and we didn’t really get the breaks this evening.
It was a slow start to Dichio’s Sunderland career. He was signed to give us extra fire power in the promotion run in, but failed to find the net in 16 appearances; albeit 13 of those were from the bench.
He finally got off the mark in a 5-0 home demolition of Tranmere Rovers the following August (Craig Russell lining up at centre forward for the visitors) and managed 12 goals (including one penalty – why oh why didn’t he take one at Wembley?) in 43 games (21 starts) as Sunderland surged to the title.
His opportunities in the Premier League were limited – he managed a solitary goal in the top flight for us in 2000–01, before departing for West Brom, initially on loan, and then for a fee of £1.25m. He made 97 appearances for the club, 62 as sub, and scored 18 goals.
Not a bad strike rate… but nothing compared to what Vieri would have got!