Despite it being three days after a goalless draw at home to John Sillett’s Coventry City and four days ahead of a trip to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, it was a busy day at Roker back on this day in 1990.
It was perhaps inevitable when you consider that Denis Smith had taken the club from the Third Division to the top flight in just three seasons with virtually the same group of players, but the Lads were struggling in the First Division.
After 12 league games, Smith’s side had only two wins on the board, but mainly due to the fact only two sides were going to be relegated due to the expansion of Division One to 22 teams, Sunderland sat a place above the drop zone.
It was always going to be tough to avoid the drop, especially having been promoted in controversial circumstances following Swindon Town’s “irregular” financial affairs, but as Smith himself explained in his autobiography “Just One of Seven”, the challenge was made a lot tougher once he was notified of his budget:
We could have done with another season developing in Division Two, but you don’t turn promotion down. What you can do, though, is take full advantage. Looking back I don’t feel that I was given a fair crack of the whip at what would prove to be my only top flight season.
I was not given enough money to spend on enough quality players to keep us up. In short I don’t feel chairman Bob Murray backed me sufficiently financially. At our first board meeting after we’d confirmed as replacing Swindon in the First Division, I asked, “what money have you got to strengthen?”
At that meeting my budget for transfer fees was set at £500,000, but I wasn’t given an increase in wage budget, so if I wanted to bring anyone in I would have to prune my existing squad first.
This led to the manager taking the decision that he would make room by first moving on 35-year-old striker Eric Gates, whose partnership with Marco Gabbiadini had been a major part of the success of the previous three seasons, as the former Ipswich Town striker moved to Carlisle United.
The replacement for Gates was eventually confirmed as Peter Davenport who moved up the A19 from Middlesbrough, which came after a lengthy chase for John Byrne from Le Harve didn’t materialise and he returned to England with Brighton and Hove Albion instead.
Smith also turned his attentions to the defence, where Kevin Ball arrived from Portsmouth for £350,000, a bargain knowing what we know now, but a hefty chunk of the allocated budget.
This resulted in 34-year-old central defender John MacPhail making a move initially on loan to Hartlepool United, and on this day 33 years ago, it was confirmed the move was made permanent. Unfortunately, in both cases, Denis Smith would regret letting Gates and MacPhail leave the club:
I’d decided to release Eric Gates on a free transfer because I thought he would not be up to the rigours of a season in the top flight at the age of 35. I realise now that I got that one wrong.
Unfortunately another player I now know I let go too early was our captain, centre-half John MacPhail. Monty was different case to Gates. After appearing in our opening game, he was offered the opportunity to join Hartlepool United as a player-coach, where he helped them to promotion from Division Four at the first time of asking, playing over 40 games.
It’s ridiculous to admit this, but as well as the attraction of beginning the path towards a coaching or managerial career, part of the attraction of joining Hartlepool was they were also paying John more money than he’d been earning at Roker.
In addition to MacPhail leaving Roker, it was widely reported on this day in 1990 that Smith was close to signing 20-year-old Dunfermline Athletic and Scotland U21 full-back Ray Sharp in a proposed £300,000 deal, with the player himself commenting on the rumours:
I don’t really know much about Sunderland’s interest, but I would go if the chance came to better myself.
Despite the reports and those words from the player, the move didn’t happen and Sharp stayed with Dunfermline until 1995 when he made the move to Preston North End.
Also taking place on this day in 1990 was a fixture at Windsor Park in Belfast, where a representative side from the English Football League traveled to take on their counterparts from the Irish League.
Amongst the strong squad selected from England were big-name players such as Matthew Le Tissier, Gary Mabbutt, Nigel Clough, Bruce Grobbelaar and a certain Marco Gabbiadini from the Sunderland ranks.
The 22-year-old striker, who was still finding his feet in Division One, replaced Clough in the latter stages and was involved in the move that saw Roy Wegerle score a late equaliser to save their blushes, after the representatives of the Irish League had opened the scoring via a corker from Peter Murray.