Interview by Brian Leng
Gary Bennett may well have experienced quite a number of disappointments during his Sunderland career, but he has no hesitation in recalling his lowest point of his eleven year stay at the club - that heartbreaking defeat against Gillingham back in May 1987 which consigned the once great club to the ignominy Third Division football for the first time in its history.
“There’s no question, that was the worst moment of my entire career,” says Gary, “In fact, everyone at the club was completely devastated and for weeks the whole place was in a state of total shock. Even Lawrie McMenemy, who’d left the club some weeks earlier, had been deeply upset that he was leaving the club on the brink of relegation.
“I remember a few days before he resigned, he called me into his office and said, ‘Listen Gary, regardless of what happens to me, you must do everything in your power to save this club from the drop.’ The media may have portrayed Lawrie as a mercenary, uncaring character but there was another side to the man. From day one he’d been desperate to succeed and when things didn’t work out, he was as devastated as anyone.
“Supporters still talk to me about that Gillingham game and the affect it had on the whole town but, in reality, we should never have ended up in the play-offs. A victory in our final game of the season against Barnsley at Roker Park would have kept us up and when we’d raced into a two goal lead we appeared to be home and dry. But the game changed soon after the break when Mark Proctor missed from the penalty-spot. They came back to beat us 3-2.
“Even then we were confident we could beat Gillingham in the play-offs but, having lost the first leg 3-2 at their place, we knew we had a game on our hands back at Roker. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the events of that afternoon. They took the lead after only three minutes, then two goals from Eric Gates turned the game in our favour. We had the chance to go even further ahead when a Dave Swindlehurst header was handled on the line, but poor Mark Proctor failed from the spot again.
“At half-time Bob Stokoe, who had taken over as caretaker-manager, decided to change things around by moving me up front with Dave Swindlehurst dropping back to central defence. It was a bold move but we desperately needed to score to avoid the tie going into extra-time.
“Our task was made even harder shortly after the interval when Ian Hesford up-ended one of their forwards inside the box. He managed to save the spot-kick but, in the scramble that followed, Tony Cascarino was able to force the ball over the line from close-range.
“For almost all of the second-half we hammered away at the Fulwell End goal then, just when we thought it was going to be one of those days, the ball was crossed into the penalty area and I managed to get up and send in a floating header which beat their keeper just under the bar. Right at the death, we’d given ourselves a life-line.
“That goal swung the tie in our favour but, in the first period of extra time they hit us with an early goal which left us chasing the game. Keith Bertschin gave us hope towards the end with a brilliant diving header but, for all we ran out 4-3 winners on the day, we ended up being relegated on the away-goals rule.”
DENIS SMITH ARRIVES
By the summer of 1987 Sunderland Football Club were in dire straits. Managerless and faced with the prospect of Third Division football for the first time ever, the future certainly looked grim for Gary Bennett, his colleagues and Sunderland’s long-suffering fans. The appointment of the next manager, it was argued, would be the most important in the entire history of the club. Fortunately, chairman Bob Murray turned to the up-and-coming York City boss, Denis Smith, and almost overnight, a revival in the club’s fortunes was underway.
“I’ve always maintained that the appointment of Denis Smith was a masterstroke by Bob Murray,” says Gary. “The thing was, Denis knew the lower divisions and had achieved enormous success at York City on limited resources. I’ll never forget his first day at Roker Park when he gathered all the players into the dressing room and promptly announced he had £20,000 riding on us winning promotion at the first attempt. Apparently, this was the settlement owed to him by York City which he’d agreed to forgo if he failed to take us up in his first season.
“Suddenly, there was a new air of confidence about the place and Denis wasted no time in moving into the transfer market to strengthen the squad. John MacPhail, a vastly experienced central defender arrived from Bristol City, together with John Kay, a tenacious full-back signed from Wimbledon who was to become something of a cult figure with the Roker fans. Denis always reckoned Kaysey, who was picked up for a bargain £22,000 fee, was his best ever signing for the club.
“Then, of course, there was Marco Gabbiadini. When we heard that Denis had gone back to his former club to sign a young Italian striker, we all had visions of a typical sun-tanned character with jet-black hair. You can imagine our surprise when this pale, blonde kid turned up for his first training session with us. At first we hadn’t a clue who he was and I think one or two of the lads thought it was a wind-up when Denis introduced him to the squad!
“However, he soon forged a devastating strike-partnership with Eric Gates and the two of them tore defences apart as we raced to the Third Division title. It was the perfect combination - the subtle skills of Gatesy coupled with Marco’s blistering pace and finishing ability. For three or four seasons they were unstoppable, scoring some memorable goals, and two in particular against Newcastle which will live long in the memories of our supporters.”
'G-FORCE' DESTROY MAGS!
By the start of the 89-90 season, Denis Smith’s Roker revival was well under way with promotion back to the top flight now very much a realistic target. After a convincing win at Swindon on the opening day of the season, we were rarely out of the promotion frame although they had to rely on a late run of away victories to secure sixth place. Their reward was a mouth-watering, two-leg, play-off confrontation with arch rivals, Newcastle United, who, having finished in third place, were firm favourites to reach the final.
“Few people gave us much of a chance after the first-leg at Roker Park had ended goal-less,” recalls Gary, “But we’d been doing particularly well away from home that season and we were confident we could get a result at St. James’ Park. “In a way I think we won the psychological battle. I remember at the end of the first game at Roker, their players were celebrating as if they were already through, even though there was still another ninety minutes of football to play.
“Our game-plan for the second-leg was simple - keep it tight at the back and then hit them on the break and, to be honest, it worked like a dream. Gatesy gave us the lead mid-way through the first-half and then, with about ten minutes to go, he released Marco to score the clincher. It was a classic Gabbiadini finish, driven low into the corner of the net, and our supporters packed behind the goal went absolutely crazy.
“Moments later however, absolute mayhem broken out as hundreds of Newcastle fans poured onto the pitch, trying to get the game abandoned. Eventually, we were forced to retreat to the safety of the dressing-room and, as the minutes ticked away, we began to worry about the outcome until the referee, George Courtney, came in to reassure us. ‘Don’t worry lads,’ he said, ‘If I have to wait until midnight, I’ll make sure this game is completed!’
“After about fifteen minutes delay we turned to play out the closing stages, but at the final whistle we had to make another hasty exit as the United fans broke through the police cordon around the pitch. For all we’d enjoyed a memorable victory, we were all quite relieved to get away from St. James’ Park that night.
“I’ll never forget the scenes when we arrived back in Sunderland. The whole town seemed to be out in the streets celebrating, in fact you’d have thought we’d won the F.A. Cup. But, in a way, I suppose our victory meant even more to our supporters. It wasn’t the fact that we’d made it to the play-off final, but that in doing so we’d inflicted the most painful of defeats on the arch enemy.”
Having disposed of Newcastle, Denis Smith’s team were now only one step away from promotion to Division One, although it was strongly rumoured that their victory at St. James’ Park had already secured their place in the top flight. Their opponents in the final, Swindon Town, were under investigation for financial irregularities and there was widespread speculation that the authorities were about to impose the most severe of penalties by relegating the Wiltshire club down to Division Three.
“To be honest, we weren’t really sure what was happening,” says Gary, “There was certainly quite a lot in the press leading up to the final and it was even suggested that the game wouldn’t go ahead. But we’d heard absolutely nothing officially and proceeded to prepare for the game as normal. When it got to the week of the final, we assumed the matter was dead and buried.
“Unfortunately, we just didn’t perform on the day and ended up losing 1-0. The winning goal was a little unfortunate from my point of view when a shot from outside of the box deflected off my shins and into the net, leaving Tony Norman in our goal totally helpless. But, in all fairness, they fully deserved their victory having totally outplayed us for most of the game and, had it not been for Tony, we would certainly have suffered a much heavier defeat.
“We were left to reflect on what might have been, until a few days later when the news broke that Swindon were to be relegated back to Division Two and we, as beaten finalists, were to be promoted in their place. We’d made it, albeit in the most bizarre of circumstances. But we weren’t bothered - we were back in the top flight!
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