I can remember exactly where I was in 1985 when Eric Lazenby Gates was announced as a Sunderland player, part of Lawrie McMenemy’s revolution at Roker Park he cost £150,000 and would eventually prove to be worth every penny.
I was over the moon at this signing, partly because if he was playing for us, he could not be the irritating thorn in our flesh he always seemed to be when he played against us!
Eric Gates brother Bill played for Middlesborough from 1961 to 1973, but it was Ipswich, who at one time had an extensive scouting network in the North-east, who picked Gates up playing for Bishop Auckland schoolboys and signed him professionally in October 1972.
He went on to make 384 appearances (including 39 substitute) for the Tractor Boys, scoring 96 goals. He was a very creative part of the Ipswich team that won the 1981 UEFA Cup and scored two goals against Barcelona in the quarter final of the 1979 Cup Winners Cup.
In 1980 he was capped twice by Ron Greenwood for England, but following a 2-1 reverse in Romania, was surprisingly never called upon again.
Lawrie McMenemy’s appointment to Sunderland in 1985 saw him sign the diminutive forward, the marquee signing that so excited the Roker Park faithful at the time.
Sadly, the McMenemy era proved disastrous, with Sunderland waiting eight games before a victory in the 1985/86 season. We were six games into the season before we scored a goal, Gates netted alongside his strike partner Swindlehurst in a 3-3 home draw to Grimsby. That strike partnership never looked like gelling, though the midfield and defence looked all at odds too. We were lucky to avoid relegation as McMenemy waved a white hanky at the last home game of that season.
Gates had shown flashes in that campaign of what he could provide scoring eleven goals in all competitions, but the team and its management seemed unable to get going, surely the next season would be better?
1986/87 was no better, in fact it was considerably worse! With Swindlehurst misfiring alongside several other experienced players, Gates scored nine goals in total (including two in the ultimately disastrous play-off against Gillingham). Keith Bertschin had arrived to play alongside Swindlehurst for the last third of the season, with Gates playing behind these two, but to no avail.
McMenemy left in April 1987 and Sunderland were relegated.
With Dennis Smith at the helm for Sunderland's (and Gates's) first campaign in the third division, the tide eventually turned. Marco Gabbiadini was bought to play alongside Bertschin up front, but an injury to the big front man two games into this pairing gave Gates the chance to move up front with the bustling speedy youngster - and the legendary G Force was born.
Gates scored 21 goals in all competitions that season and importantly helped “Gabbers” to 22 goals in all competitions. Throughout the third division campaign Eric Gates teased, created, and stood out alongside the dynamic Gabbiadini. With over 90 goals scored in all competitions, promotion was deserved and the 1988/89 season could not come soon enough.
Mid-table consolidation was probably the best way of describing this season back in division two. The G Force certainly looked like they could do some damage to defences and although Gates scored only four goals that season, his assists, and creativity were evident as his young strike partner scored 21 goals in all competitions.
Alongside the young Gabbiadini, Gary Owers and Armstrong benefitted from playing with the Ferryhill Fox, who also helped Colin Pascoe score 10 goals for the campaign.
One of the more unusual sights that season was watching the blunderbuss that was Billy Whitehurst career about our paddock, with Gates often used as a sub for that experiment. Manager Smith soon saw the error of this and re-installed the G Force for the remaining two thirds of the season.
The following season 1989/90 would prove to be Gates last on Wearside, but not before Sunderland had fought their way through to the Play-Off final, courtesy of a two-nil victory over Newcastle at St James Park. Anyone who attended this game (and I have had Mag friends who have said as such) would tell you how good the G Force were that night. Gates was at his creative, teasing, impish best that night. His pass for Marco’s goal was both sublime yet typical of their partnership. His goal was a great piece of right man, right place, right moment.
I watched that game from the Gallowgate that night and the more gracious Newcastle fans around me quite simply said that Gabbiadini and Gates were just too good on the night for their team!
The Wembley play-off final against Swindon would be Gates last game in a Sunderland shirt. It of course ended in defeat, on a day when we got our tactics wrong and never got out of the starting blocks.
I am unsure whether our fortuitous promotion to the top division that season led to Gates's departure or would he have stayed for just one more tilt at division one had he known what was to come. Either way, he signed for Carlisle United in June 1990.
This would prove to be his last season as a player. He made 38 appearances for Carlisle scoring eight goals. Gates left Carlisle on bad terms, having been irritated at having to turn up at Brunton Park (a journey of 60 miles) when the team coach would have driven by his home for an away game.
He then found himself on the subs bench for the game and with only minutes left on a cold wet windy night he was told by the manager to get warmed up. Gates promptly left the bench and headed into the dressing room, stripped off and jumped straight into the bath. My memory says it was ex-mag Aiden McCaffrey who was manager at the time, surely not a case of sour grapes.
Eric Gates made 218 appearances (19 sub) scoring 54 goals in all competitions for Sunderland. He surely deserves his legendary status as part of the dynamic and skilful “G-Force”.
Despite being seen as something of a pantomime villain at Carlisle, he is widely and rightly hailed at both his previous clubs. One of the cleverest forwards I have seen play for us, with a canny knack of creating chances for others, as well as the odd important goal or two!
Since finishing playing, he has enjoyed a career in the media as a pundit on Metro FM, the Legends phone-in, writing for a local newspaper, as well as helping on the family farm raising amongst other things highland cattle and pigs.
He always was just that little bit different.
Happy Birthday Eric.