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On This Day (28 July 1988): Sunderland sign ‘best midfielder in Ireland’!

Life back in Division Two wasn’t proving to be easy for Denis Smith.

After promotion from the third tier, Sunderland were on the crest of a wave. A young, exciting team had been built, spearheaded by 20-year-old Marco Gabbiadini, and the hope – if not the expectation – was that the momentum produced as we raced towards the title would continue back in Division Two.

Alongside Gabbiadini, Eric Gates had played a pivotal role in promotion. Gates had enjoyed a renaissance at the club. After being one of Lawrie McMenemy’s high-profile flops, he’d stuck around when others had fled, and helped the club get back up at the first attempt.

After three seasons, however, his contract – given during McMenemy’s first summer and reportedly lucrative for the time – had expired. And while the lads were back in full pre-season swing, Gates was conspicuous by his absence. So too was Reuben Agboola, who was also out of contract and had rejected offers to prolong his Roker stay.

Smith said:

I talk to them every day and they know where I am. The situation is the same, I want both players to re-sign.

With Gates’s Sunderland career looking to be over, Sunderland were in desperate need of striking reinforcements. Smith had sold Keith Bertschin to Walsall for £30,000 and was left with youngster John Hepple as the only partner to Gabbiadini.

However, his main striking targets had already gone elsewhere, leaving Smith frustrated:

Now Bertschin has gone, I’ve got young Gabbiadini and John Hepple, and I would possibly be looking for someone with a little bit more experience.

I’d like a lad in his early twenties who can play up front, but the people at the top of my list like Leroy Rosenior, John Byrne and Paul Rideout have gone.

The fans were becoming a little frustrated too, as despite lots of speculation, Sunderland hadn’t managed to make a single signing.

Smith said:

I know people like to see new faces but my job is to win football matches.

If I do that with the present squad or with other people, it doesn't matter, so long as I do it in the end.

However, that situation was to change imminently with the £20,000 arrival of Limerick midfielder Tommy Lynch, who was reportedly ‘the best midfielder in Ireland’.

The 23-year-old had played part-time football over the water and had tried his luck at making it as a full-time pro after being made redundant from his job as a draughtsman.

Lynch was on trial at Gillingham before Smith nipped in to secure a deal, and he was hoping his new signing would live up to his reputation.

I hope they’re right when they say that!

He’s mobile, strong in the tackle, and can head.

I hear he is a different class at free kicks and penalties – John MacPhail might have some competition.

When Paul Atkinson left I was short of a left-sided midfield player, and I’ll be pleased if Lynch is as good as everyone keeps telling me.

Unfortunately, Lynch’s prowess had been somewhat oversold. The Irishman struggled to settle in at Roker, and played only a handful of games at left back, in which he looked out of his depth. We never got to see him take a penalty, let alone a free kick, and he departed a year or so later with six appearances under his belt.

He did however go on to have a very successful lower league career, establishing himself as something of a legend at Shrewsbury Town, and in 2016 was named in their best-ever starting XI.

Soccer - Endsleigh League Division Two - Shrewsbury Town v Wrexham
Lynch played more than 200 games for Shrewsbury
Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

As for Agboola and Gates, both did re-sign contracts eventually, but Gates’ hesitation could well have been behind the decision to leave him on the bench for much of the first half of the season – new signing, the experienced Billy Whitehurst, preferred up front to partner Marco.

That had always puzzled me, particularly after their partnership had been so successful the previous season.

Perhaps we’ve found the answer.

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