Although Sunderland born and bred, David Rush arrived at the club from Notts County as a 17-year-old in 1988, and quickly gained the attention of fans by notching a few goals at youth and reserve team level.
He was on the periphery of first-team action but, by the end of the successful 1989-90 season – which saw the club promoted after Swindon’s financial irregularities – he had only one first-team appearance to his name; a 20-minute sub appearance in the Littlewoods Cup at home to a Fulham side featuring Clive Walker.
With his first-team path blocked by Marco Gabbiadini, Eric Gates and Thomas Hauser, as well as former youth team teammates Warren Hawke and Kieron Brady, Rush’s opportunities were few and far between.
An injury crisis the following season – in the top flight – however, presented Rush with a springboard into the first team, one which he took with aplomb.
Injuries to talisman Gabbiadini and his strike partner Peter Davenport – signed from Middlesbrough to replace the departed Eric Gates – and Thomas Hauser, saw Rush thrust into first-team action as we headed into spring. And, for someone making their first league appearances of their career, he did remarkably well.
Bright, busy and energetic, Rush was a livewire forward, bursting with enthusiasm and never giving defenders a moment’s respite with his continual movement, both when we were in and out of possession.
Rush had scored on his league debut – netting against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Boxing Day after coming on as a sub for Marco Gabbiadini, and was given his first start at Loftus Road in the following game, partnering Peter Davenport in Marco’s absence.
Rush failed to score, but did impress, and quickly established himself as Gabbiadini’s understudy.
He stepped into the team on a number of occasions, particularly impressing in a vital 2-1 home win over Palace, during which he tormented the Palace defence and headed the winner past Nigel Martyn in the Fulwell End.
While the season ended in relegation, the future looked bright indeed – a year of higher-level experience combined with the maturing of Brady and Rush was cause for significant optimism. However, a slow start to the season saw Denis Smith cash in on Gabbiadini, on the basis he could build a new team that was capable of getting us straight back up with the £1.8m that headed up the A1 in exchange.
The majority of the money was splashed out on not one but two forwards – John Byrne and Don Goodman, the rest was used to buy Anton Rogan.
In the period between Gabbiadini’s departure and the arrivals of Byrne and Goodman, Rush – quite rightly – had been given his chance, and did pretty well, scoring two goals in a 4-2 win over John Byrne’s Brighton at Roker.
He missed games against Cambridge and Port Vale through injury and by the time Bristol Rovers rolled into town the following week, Byrne was resplendent in red and white.
Rush’s all-action style was valued by Smith, however, and he found a place for the youngster on the right-hand side of midfield, where he did well. But you can’t help but feel he didn’t get the chance he deserved to replace Gabbiadini – only two and a half years his senior – in the Sunderland number 10 shirt.
Rush performed admirably after Smith’s departure, mostly from the right-hand side of midfield, where he memorably netted at Upton Park in the fifth round replay to set up the quarter-final with Chelsea.
After starting in the final, he may well have expected to kick on the following season – particularly after Byrne’s shock departure to Millwall – but under Malcolm Crosby and then Terry Butcher, he failed to establish himself as a first-choice forward.
Injuries played their part, and his attitude was questioned in the press on occasion, and come the end of the 92/93 season, Rush had had enough – telling the press he wanted a move away from Roker due to his lack of opportunities.
This didn’t go down well with a supporter base who were frustrated with the fall in performances we’d witnessed the previous season – there seemed to be a distinct lack of desire and commitment, maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t. Regardless, something wasn’t right, and for a local lad to voice his discontent just didn’t go down well at all, with Rush frequently the target of ire from the crowd.
A move didn’t transpire in the summer of ‘93, and Rush’s first-team chances were even rarer with the addition of Phil Gray to the forward line. Loan moves to Peterborough and Cambridge had failed to spark a permanent move, and moves to Posh and Oxford had fallen through on deadline day.
His contract had expired and he was on a week-to-week deal at the time – remember this was pre-Bosman, so the club still ‘owned’ the player, despite him being out of contract.
Mick Buxton, who’d taken over from Terry Butcher in the November, said:
I don’t think David, hand on heart, wants to leave, but I think he feels that, because of the comments attributed to him last year, he needs to get away.
And get away he eventually did – joining Oxford, who by this point were managed by Denis Smith – for a fee of £100,000.
He left Sunderland with 72 appearances including 21 as a sub, scoring 13 goals, and went on to play 92 times for Oxford, netting 21 times.
His career fizzled out after the Manor Ground – brief goal-less spells at York and Hartlepool ended his professional career, and aged 28, he called it a day.
I always feel conflicted when I look back on David Rush at Sunderland. On the one hand, it’s a serious case of unfulfilled potential – some of his own making, some of not being given the chances he deserved in his natural position.
But then, he played for Sunderland in an FA Cup Final, scored some dramatic goals, and wore the shirt proudly a number of times.
And that’s something to be immensely proud of. But I still can’t help but think, “what if?”.