Denis Smith was always on the lookout for another partner for Marco Gabbiadini, and although he had what seemed a perfect one in the shape of Eric Gates, the manager was continually eyeing up a more physical striker to partner his star turn.
Only a month earlier, he’d sacrificed his new striker Billy Whitehurst to land Hull keeper Tony Norman, and was looking overseas for a new addition to the goalscoring ranks ahead of a home clash with Walsall.
Ajax’s former Spurs front man Ally Dick had been on trial at Roker during the week, but top of Smith’s list was Uwe Fuchs, the West German under 21 striker from Fortuna Cologne, who’d been invited over for a week’s trial.
However, despite the attractive offer of spending the remaining weeks of the winter on Wearside, Uwe was headed to Italy, for talks with Fiorentina and Sampdoria.
You’ve really got to question some players' ambition, haven’t you?
I’ve been looking abroad because you have to check every possible avenue. But I haven’t given up hope of making a breakthrough at home.
There are one or two players I’m after who I think may become available before the transfer deadline.
Fuchs, who many will remember had a highly successful loan spell at Middlesbrough in 1995, when he helped the club win promotion with nine goals in 13 games, didn’t end up signing for an Italian club, preferring to stay in his homeland with Fortuna Dusseldorf.
As the news broke of the move for Fuchs falling through, Sunderland were limbering up for a home clash with Walsall at Roker Park.
The Saddlers had come up with us in the 1987/88 season, winning a playoff with Bristol City, however, while we’d had a decent season so far (sitting 6th in the table until defeat at Leeds the week before dropped us to 10th), John Barnwell’s Walsall were struggling.
Indeed, as they headed to Wearside, they had lost the last 15 consecutive games, and were firmly rooted to the bottom of the table. They’d won only two games in 27 all season, both at home (one against us, of course!), and had scored six and conceded 22 on their travels.
Even without the suspended Marco Gabbiadini, it was a home banker.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Of course, Walsall – featuring former Sunderland striker Keith Bertschin up front, and with current Norwich manager Dean Smith making his debut as a 17-year-old in the heart of defence – won at a canter.
I’ll always remember Walsall keeper, the Ferryhill-born former Darlo stopper Fred Barber, wearing some sort of latex ‘old man’ mask as the teams came out for kick-off.
The consequential chants from the Fulwell End were predictable if not imaginative, but Barber – who later had a spell as goalkeeper coach at Sunderland – just laughed. Light relief from their predicament, perhaps. I’ve always wondered whether this was a regular thing for Fred, or just a one-off on his return to the north east.
Anyway, Old Man Barber had the last laugh as, just as predictably as the crowd’s queries as to what on earth Barber was wearing, came an avalanche of Walsall goals.
First, Richard Ord’s dire back pass put in Stuart Rimmer to open the scoring, and then on the hour mark Gates was robbed of the ball on half way, and Rimmer grabbed an excellent second.
Bertschin had been forced off around the half-hour mark through injury, while Sunderland tried to change it up at halftime, Tony Cullen coming on for his debut in place of Reuban Agboola as Smith dispensed with the sweeper system he favoured for a lot of the season. However, the change of shape had little effect as Rimmer grabbed his hattrick after Tony Norman and Ord got themselves into a mess, and left the striker to complete his treble.
Pre-game, Denis had warned the crowd against expecting to be 7-0 up in the first ten minutes. He said nothing about this.
Sunderland 0-3 Walsall
Goals: Rimmer 9, 64, 72
Sunderland: Norman, Bennett, MacPhail, Ord, Gray, Agboola (Cullen 46), Doyle, Cornforth, Armstrong, Gates, Pascoe. Sub not used: Lynch
Walsall: Barber, Dornan, Mower, Shakespeare, Forbes, Smith, Pritchard, Goodwin, Rimmer, Bertschin (Christie 33), Rees. Sub not used: Taylor