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A portrait of Dennis Smith the manager of Sunderland

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On This Day (6 May 1991): Denis Smith gears up for do-or-die clash with Manchester City

Sunderland’s First Division future hung in the balance as we headed into the last game of the season – and the gaffer was hoping for some favours...

Considering Sunderland’s sixth-placed finish and belated promotion the season before, we’d acquitted ourselves rather well to the challenge of staying up in the First Division – especially considering only three seasons before we’d been a Third Division team, and had retained the crux of the squad.

Unfortunately, injuries had taken their toll on an inexperienced squad, and we’d played out the last third of the season with youngsters David Rush and Kieron Brady featuring probably more than manager Denis Smith would have liked. Marco Gabbiadini was badly missed.

Still, the club had made a bloody good fist of it and, as the north east’s only top flight club, had won a lot of friends up and down the country too.

Sunderland were in a straight shoot-out with Luton Town to see who would stay up – only two teams would be relegated as the top flight was expanding – and the Hatters, who Sunderland had beaten at Kenilworth Road a few weeks earlier, were facing a home game against already relegated Derby County.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Derby County v Norwich City
Smith hoped for some help from Sunderland fan Mick Harford...
Photo by Phil O’Brien/EMPICS via Getty Images

Sunderland had only been denied all three points in the game before after a tremendous David Seaman save from Gary Owers, and Smith was hoping that the esteem the club was held in, his relationship with a number of former teammates, together with Derby’s numerous Sunderland connections, would count for something as we looked forward to a game five days later at Maine Road against a Manchester City team managed by Peter Reid, and featuring Niall Quinn.

I think we can get a result at Maine Road. We are optimistic about our chances.

Derby could do us a big favour. Arthur Cox, Nick Pickering and Mick Harford all have strong Sunderland connections.

It’s a question of asking them, ‘Come on lads, where is your pride?’

Peter Shilton and I go back a long way to our days at Stoke City and I will be giving Shilts a ring.

There is a lot of goodwill towards us in the First Division. George Graham, the Arsenal manager, told me on Saturday night that he hopes we stay up. And considering the situation that we are in, the spirit around the club is unbelievable.

The board of directors aren’t resigning. I’m not being sacked, the fans are right behind us, and there is no sniping in the media.

All that indicates we must be close to getting it right.

But we have to remember that we are still second bottom. If that is where we finish, then that’s where we deserve to be.

Smith had done his reputation no harm at all during the season, despite our perilous position, and had been continually linked with the manager’s job at former club Stoke City, as he was on almost a weekly basis while at Sunderland.

Bob Murray though had stuck with him and backed him to some extent in the transfer market, and Murray – looking towards the days ahead – said:

It is a question of getting the prayer mats out.

Of course, those prayers were in vain, as Mick Harford decided his loyalties lay with Luton rather than Sunderland (a fact strangely overlooked when he signed for us two years later), but that’s another story, for another day.

On this day 31 years ago we still had hope. And really, as Sunderland fans, that’s all we can ever ask for, isn’t it?

ENGLISH Soccer - DERBY County V SUNDERLAND Photo by David Worthy/EMPICS via Getty Images
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