clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

John MacPhail - A rock alongside Sunderland legends

Wednesday night’s game will be used as a chance for fans of both Sunderland and Sheffield United to celebrate John MacPhail - a man who played a huge part in dragging our club out of the third tier at the end of the 80s.

On Wednesday night Sunderland will host Sheffield United at the Stadium of Light. Both clubs are among those that John MacPhail played for in his long career, and on Wednesday there will - starting in the 5th minute - be a minute of applause for our former stalwart, as well as fundraiser buckets at the turnstiles.

Born in Dundee, John signed for Sunderland in the summer of 1987 at the age of 31.

The club had just been relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history on the back of the disastrous Lawrie McMenemy reign, and one of the first things new manager Denis Smith did was to recruit centre-back MacPhail from Bristol City.

The two knew each other well from their time at York, where Smith had been manager before MacPhail was sold to Bristol.

Therefore, when Sunderland’s new manager needed a steady experienced head to solidify what had been the wobbling defence of a team relegated twice in the previous three seasons, he turned to his former player.

The first thing John MacPhail did when he arrived at Roker Park was to make a bet with his new central defensive partner - Gary Bennett - as to who would score the most goals the following season... and without telling him he would also be taking the penalties for his new team. Bennett, who was already a huge crowd favourite, had been at Sunderland for a few seasons, much of which he had spent partnering Shaun Elliott in defence.

But although they were both pacey and strong in a tackle, a criticism that could be levelled was that they were too similar.

After Elliott was sold to Norwich, Lawrie McMenemy made a failed attempt to partner Bennett with Steve Hetzke, but with the arrival of MacPhail everything clicked and Gary Bennett found his perfect central defensive partner.

Although not blessed with pace, John was a good reader of the game, with good positional sense and was rarely caught out. He could tackle, was a great leader and superb in the air. In fact, after one of his early games, Smith told the press that “John MacPhail probably has ‘Mitre’ imprinted on his forehead because he won that many balls”.

At the other end of the pitch he presented a goal threat at corners, and with penalty duties he ended the successful 1997-88 promotion campaign with an incredible 16 goals from centre half. He was also ever present in a back four that largely comprised of John Kay, Bennett, MacPhail and Reuben Agboola. Gary Bennett lost his bet.

The next season as Sunderland consolidated in Division Two he only missed one game and in 1989-90 when the club again were promoted - although somewhat due to the misdemeanours of Swindon Town - he still played 38 games.

Still the rock, still the leader at the back for Denis Smith’s team at the age of 34.

With Sunderland in the top flight for the start of the 1990-91 season, Smith again turned to a back four of Kay, Bennett, MacPhail and Agboola for the very first game.

This was John’s first and only top flight appearance in his career before the manager recruited a certain Kevin Ball, and not long after John departed Sunderland to see out his playing career with Hartlepool.

For my generation when we look back at the Dennis Smith era we think of the players that stood out and hauled the club from the third tier to the top flight. Gabbiadini, Gates, Bennett, Armstrong, Owers and MacPhail. He stood toe to toe with them all and I honestly cannot remember him having a bad game for Sunderland.

John MacPhail came to Sunderland late in his career when he was 31 years old. He anchored a leaky defence and helped the club to promotion. Twice. To convey his impact to everyone under 30, he was our Danny Baath. And some more.

As you may have seen in the press, about a year and half ago John had a bad fall down the stairs at his home and suffered life-changing injuries. He remained in hospital until recently, undergoing neurological treatment, and fighting to be well enough to finally be able to go home. However, his home requires significant alteration and the cost of adapting and equipping it for his needs are expensive.

He played in an era long before the riches of the Premier League and associated wages, when footballers in the lower tiers were not well looked after and certainly not set up for the future when they retired.

At the time of writing John's family are well on their way to their target of raising £30,000 to help alter his home and secure his future. Please donate generously to the collection buckets at the turnstiles or you can also donate to their crowdfunding page in the link here.


The Contenders: Who are the favourites with the bookies for the Sunderland Head Coach job?


Swedish gaffer to meet Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus over vacant Head Coach position


The Meat Of The Matter: Was it ever Tony Mowbray’s place to dictate the direction of the club?

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report