Mick Heathcote came into the Sunderland side with a bang, and whilst that didn’t translate into a raft of further appearances for the club his contribution was still felt by those within Roker Park.
Almost 35 years on from his debut the County Durham lad today celebrates his 57th birthday, and so we take the chance to look at the career of a former Northern League defender that managed to break into the professional game…
After being part of Middlesbrough’s youth team, Heathcote had spent three seasons with Spennymoor United when in 1987 he was offered a trial by new Sunderland boss Denis Smith. A winner of the League Cup whilst with the Moors, the Brewery Field club pocketed an initial £12,000 when he did enough to earn a full time contract.
Starting with the reserves, he played in the first eight Central League games of the 1987-88 campaign and was soon called up for first team duty.
That was for the Division Three fixture against Southend United, during which he came on as a second half substitute for fellow debutant Richard Ord.
Playing his part in a 7-0 romp before he himself had to be stretchered off, Heathcote’s second appearance came later the same month as this time the side won 7-1 against Rotherham United in the Sherpa Van Trophy.
It was an impressively quick rise through the ranks, but a back problem had caused him to be withdrawn during his first senior appearance and was to become a reoccurring issue.
Having worked as a delivery driver whilst with Spennymoor, Heathcote was concerned that the heavy lifting the role required would impact his career and so it proved – he had several lengthy spells on the sidelines whilst on Wearside.
He did however manage a loan spell at Division Four club Halifax Town during his first season in professional football before having a brief stint in the same level with York City in 1989-90.
The Minstermen were keen to extend his deal too, but with Smith feeling he was needed back at Sunderland Heathcote returned and later in the campaign enjoyed a handful of starts in the centre of defence.
Although he didn’t feature in the ultimately successful Play-Offs attempt at the end of that season and was subsequently sold to Shrewsbury Town over the summer, Heathcote’s efforts were still recognised by those within the squad.
Once describing his best strength as ‘getting stuck in’ during an interview for the Roker Review, he was said to have dealt with his injury problems in good spirits and was popular with the other players in the dressing room, several of whom have spoken about how he would keep the mood up on away trips.
After a season with Shrewsbury he was sold at a profit to Cambridge United.
Often a threat at set pieces, he was a regular starter there before moving to Plymouth Argyle in summer 1995.
Having been involved already with two promotions at SAFC he captained his new club to victory in the Third Division Play-Off final and was also named in the divisional PFA Team of the Year for that campaign.
Still seen now as a Plymouth legend, he was twice named Argyle’s Player of the Year, and in 2019 came 6th in the centre back category of the club’s ‘Greatest Pilgrims’ poll.
Whilst approaching his late 30s he had a second spell in Shrewsbury and then saw his career turn full circle with a return to the non-league scene that included an appearance in the 2005 FA Trophy final for Hucknall Town.
Appreciated for his efforts both on and off the pitch, details of his life post-playing are thin on the ground, but best wishes Mick – wherever you are now!
Born: Kelloe, 10 September 1965
Sunderland 7 (Gabbiadini 31, Atkinson 42, 57, Gates 44, 49, 82, 89)
Southend United 0
Barclays League Division Three, Roker Park 3 November 1987
Final SAFC appearance:
Sunderland 2 (Owers 38, Armstrong 86)
Oldham Athletic 3 (Adams 25, Ritchie 65, Palmer 77)
Barclays League Division One, Roker Park 5 May 1990
Total appearances for SAFC:
6 (+ 4 as sub)