After Lawrie McMenemy had packed his bags and we experienced a brief flirtation with the returning Bob Stokoe, Sunderland were on the lookout for a long term relationship in 1987.
With the club on its knees and about to embark on its first campaign in the third tier, chairman Bob Murray knew he had to get his first permanent appointment spot on, and thankfully he soon identified ‘Mr. Right’ – a certain Denis Smith.
It proved to be a match made in heaven as the former York City boss helped drag Sunderland out of the wilderness over the next couple of years, having kicked off his reign on this day thirty six years ago with a tough workout at Gretna.
Then in the Northern League, the Scots gave a good account of themselves but after a crushing relegation, the main aim for Sunderland was to get back to winning ways as quickly as possible, and the early signs were that Smith was going to build a side that fans could quickly fall back in love with.
Doubtless aware that supporters will always appreciate a team that puts the effort in, the gaffer told the press before the game that he would be expecting high standards from his players, having already worked them hard during a series of hill runs.
The squad was seemingly responding to his methods, and Smith was pleased to report that the Lads were raring to go. The plan was to give minutes to as many faces as possible, with John Moore the only player unavailable due to a groin strain.
Although keen not to badmouth his predecessor too much, Smith suggested that he was disappointed with the way McMenemy had done certain things as it had left Sunderland without a defined pattern.
Hoping to experiment with a few systems at Raydale Park before establishing a style going forward, Smith was also said to be considering the futures of trialists Gavin Liddle and Billy Surtees.
Both had been playing in the local non-league scene, and although Surtees had notched almost a century of goals for Ryhope Juniors during the previous season, it was Liddle (referred to as Mark by some sources) who made a twenty-minute cameo against the Anvils.
Smith was indeed able to test out a few options but by the time the Chester-le-Street left back came on, the scoring was complete.
Sunderland had led following Gary Bennett’s early header, yet it was only when Gretna had replied via Tony Monoghan’s shot from the edge of the penalty box that the new supremo really saw the character he was after. The hosts had been competitive throughout but once pegged back their, guests quickly stepped things up.
Mark Proctor had created the opener and he had a hand in his side’s other two- first cleverly flicking the ball into Dale White who finished smartly from twelve yards, and then swinging another cross towards Bennett, who nodded it down for Eric Gates to tuck away.
Despite this, there was still room for improvement.
Smith was unimpressed with the manner of the equaliser, but the performance was on the right lines and so he was given a good reception by the supporters before they all returned from this brief elopement over the border.
It would soon be time to get down to the real business and with a promotion push on the horizon, the honeymoon period was set to continue.
Thursday 23 July 1987
Gretna 1 (Monoghan 55’)
Sunderland 3 (Bennett 7’, White 57’, Gates 68’)
Sunderland: Hesford, Burley (Kay 46’), Corner (Ord 70’); Bennett, Gray (Liddle 70’), Lemon; Cornforth (Doyle 46’), Proctor (Owers 70’), Armstrong (Atkinson 70’); Bertschin (White 46’), Buchanan (Gates 46’)