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On This Day (23 March 1988): Denis Smith admits: ‘My wife told me not to sign him!’

This defender proved to be a solid signing as Sunderland rose through the divisions... but who was it that Mrs Smith didn’t rate too highly?! 

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

When those of a certain vintage look back at solid, reliable central defenders, John MacPhail is one who springs to mind.

The 32-year-old Scotsman, who Smith had managed at York City before signing him for Sunderland from Bristol City, was a tricky player to pigeonhole. On the one hand, he was a tough, rugged, no-nonsense defender. On the other, he had a reasonable turn of pace, was comfortable on the ball, and scored a decent amount of goals, too.

Since arriving for the unusual fee of £23,000, MacPhail became a mainstay in defence, a reliable partner for the talented but sometimes wayward Gary Bennett – and on this day 34 years ago, Smith was reminiscing on his first impressions of MacPhail, as the duo prepared for Saturday’s return to Bootham Crescent.

Soccer - FA Cup - Fourth Round - York City v Arsenal - Bootham Crescent
MacPhail (centre) celebrates beating Arsenal while at York
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The John MacPhail that goes back to York City on Saturday is unrecognisable from the man who walked into Bootham Crescent five years ago.

He was a nightmare when I first saw him.

Smith then recalled a scouting mission to The Hawthorns to watch MacPhail – then of Sheffield United – line up for their stiffs against West Brom. A scouting mission that his wife Kate accompanied him to. Must have been Denis’s choice of a romantic night out…

When I first went to watch him in a reserve game for Sheffield United at West Brom, I brought my wife Kate along. When I told her who I was watching even she told me she didn’t rate him.

He had ability but no idea of how to play centre half. He didn’t have any direction or confidence. I think that John would agree that I rescued his career.

He is a changed man, both on and off the field, He has been a very good influence in the dressing room and I don’t think I could have said that four or five years ago.

He is maybe getting a little bit long in the tooth to play in the First Division, but I have no doubt that he is now capable of holding his own in the top flight.

MacPhail served Smith well during his time at Roker Park. In the three full seasons he was at the club he enjoyed promotion twice, captained the side for a spell during 1988-89 when Smith took the captaincy away from Gary Bennett and, at the age of 35, fulfilled Denis Smith’s prophecy – he did play in the top flight.

As Sunderland started the season in the First Division away at Norwich, MacPhail was handed a start at the expense of new summer signing Kevin Ball.

Soccer - Sunderland
MacPhail sporting my all-time favourite kit
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

If it had been anyone but Denis Smith picking the team you may have suspected it was a sentimental selection, but in reality, it was anything but. Bally had struggled in pre-season, and MacPhail’s form had deserved – what would turn out to be – his only appearance in the top division.

It resulted in a 3-2 defeat, and for the home visit of Spurs a few days later, MacPhail was dropped in favour of Ball. Sunderland played out a 0-0 defeat – keeping Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, fresh from Italia 90, at bay – and that was it for MacPhail’s Sunderland career.

After 153 appearances and 22 goals, ‘Monty’ was off to Hartlepool, where he wrapped up his playing career, and enjoyed his only stint in management.

Earlier this year, we heard MacPhail was ill in hospital, and while we’ve heard nothing since we’d like to take this opportunity to wish him all the very best, and remember his excellent career in red and white.

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