I got quite excited when I started reading The Journal on this day 2nd August 1980. Contrary to unpopular belief it looked like chairman Tom Cowie had opened the chequebook to give Ken Knighton a fighting chance in the first division following our well-deserved promotion the previous season.
Our manager appeared to be talking about two new players, I quietly and quickly took back all my previous comments about our “skinflint” chairman and his lack of ambition as I eagerly read on.
I was to be disappointed … to a degree! There were no “new players,” Knighton was talking up the form of two existing players Claudio Marangoni and Gary Rowell as Sunderland’s four-game Norwegian pre-season tour ended with another victory.
Knighton was enthusing in the press about the form of his record £380,000 signing from San Lorenzo the previous season. Marangoni had not hit the levels expected in 1979/80 and there was pressure on (from fans as well as chairman) to ensure we got more out of the elegant Argentinian. Claudio had enjoyed a good pre-season and had shown up very well in the pre-season tour. The manager described Claudio’s goal in the last game of the tour against FC Moss as, “a real cracker.” Knighton went on to say, “Claudio’s form has been very reassuring, he has looked like the player I know he can be.”
The manager was also waxing lyrical about Gary Rowell. The Seaham-born forward had sustained a medial ligament injury coming toward the end of season 1978/79. His comeback was muted, he only made eight starts in the promotion-winning campaign of 1979/80, scoring no goals in the league and only one goal in total for that season.
Knighton was keen to see Rowell return to his best form with creativity as well as goals in our return to the first division and declared “Gary has done very well and it's great to see him scoring goals again.”
Despite my disappointment at no new players, I was encouraged by our manager’s assessment of Rowell and Marangoni and felt this augured well for the season ahead.
The Argentinian had flattered somewhat in the hurly-burly of the 2nd division promotion race, but many of us could see that there was a talented player there.
Rowell returned to something like his best form in season 80/81 finishing as top scorer with eleven goals in twenty-nine appearances in all competitions. He topped the goalscoring charts in the next two seasons after this, until his release at the end of 1983/84 season. His time in the Sunderland first team saw him finish top goal scorer in six of the nine seasons he played and in all he made 266 appearances and scored 102 goals finishing his playing career with us as our leading post-war goal scorer.
Marangoni unfortunately never settled in the UK. He struggled to establish a working relationship with Ken Knighton, and often looked off the pace/out of position. After only three games in the 1980/81 season, his contract was rescinded and he returned to Argentina in November 1980 to play for Hurracan. This move allegedly saved Sunderland £230,000, the outstanding balance on the original fee as the player had left before the end of his three-year contract.
At the time, this seemed like a sharp bit of business on the part of Cowie and his team, but Marangoni’s story did not end there and there is an element of what might have been as his career unfolded from this point.
He is held in high esteem by Argentinian football fans and is still considered today one of the best defensive/holding midfielders in South American football. A fact Sunderland seemed to have overlooked when they bought him and started playing him! He played for three of the top five teams in Argentina (San Lorenzo, Independiente, and Boca Juniors) and collected nine full caps for Argentina between 1983-84. He lifted no less than five major trophies between 1980 and 1990 when he finished playing, (he also allegedly won a player of the year award, but I have not been able to find any evidence of this).
Upon finishing playing he established the first-ever soccer schools for Argentina’s youth. The schools offer coaching to children between the ages of 3-13 and are franchised throughout the country. Integral to the model of the academies is free tuition for underprivileged children. Marangoni went on to establish soccer schools in Spain and Chile also. His work in this field was acknowledged in the Endeavor Entrepreneur award in 1999 and these academies are still running today.
Sunderland finished the 1980/81 in 17th position. We went into the last game of the season against Liverpool at Anfield with relegation still a possibility. I was present at this game to witness a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Stan Cummins goal, one of my top five favourite away games ever. As it turned out Norwich’s defeat to Leicester meant our victory would not have been required to avoid relegation.
As we applauded and sang the players off the pitch that day, it crossed my mind that it would have been good to have filled the Anfield air with the melodic Claudiooooh chant and gone on to build for the following season with his silky skills alongside Arnott, Cummins, Rowell, Elliott, Buckley, Bolton, Robson, Hinnigan, et al!
What might have been!