Friday, 29 June 2018

Frank Brennan - Newcastle United

Frank Brennan - Newcastle United 

Brennan, a Scottish international, is one of Newcastle United’s greatest ever defenders. He was known as the ‘Rock of Tyneside’ and was adored by the St James Park faithful. At 6’3” he towered over many opposing centre-forwards and for such a big man he was also remarkably quick over the ground and could perform a sliding tackle with perfection.

Newcastle paid Airdrieonians £7,000 to sign the centre-half in May 1946 and the 22-year old made his debut against Millwall in a Second Division game on 31-08-1946. Newcastle reached the FA Cup semi-final in the 1946/47 season but were easily beaten by eventual winners Charlton Athletic. 

In the 1947/48 season, Newcastle, backed by their highest ever average gate of 56,299, won promotion back to Division One. Three seasons later the Magpies won the FA Cup for the fourth time when two goals from Jackie Milburn saw Blackpool beaten 2-0 in the final at Wembley. Brennan had a fine game with England international Stanley Mortensen rarely getting chance to shine for the Tangerines.

The Tynesiders were back at Wembley the following season to become the first side since Blackburn Rovers in 1890 and 1891 to win the FA Cup in consecutive seasons. Newcastle beat Arsenal 1-0, the late winner coming from Chilean George Robledo. 

The Black and Whites returned to Wembley to again win the FA Cup in 1955 but by this time Brennan was in dispute with the club. The affair led to protest meetings and his departure from the club in March 1956. Brennan later travelled the world as a coach for the British Council. He was manager when North Shields captured the 1969 FA Amateur Cup by beating Sutton United 2-1 in the final at Wembley. Frank later ran a successful sports outfitters business close to St James Park. 

John 'Jackie' Sewell

John ‘Jackie’ Sewell

Sewell, who was born in Whitehaven and worked as a coal miner during WWII, was aged 17 when he signed for Notts County in October 1944 before turning professional in August 1945. He netted his first goal for ‘The Magpies’ against Norwich City in a 3-0 victory in a Division Three (South) match. He ended the season with 21 League goals. 

Notts County competed the season in mid-table before stunning the football world by signing the England centre-forward Tommy Lawton from Chelsea in a British record deal of £20,000 in November 1947. 

The new man’s arrival pushed County’s gates up to a record high over the season to 25,380 and Lawton’s new strike partner, Jackie Sewell, found his development greatly boosted by playing alongside the former Everton League winner. Lawton took Sewell under his wing and the pair developed a strong bond between them. 

In the 1948-49 season, County, the oldest professional football club in the world, smashed in 102 goals, 15 more than champions Swansea. However they conceded 68, twice as many as the Welsh side and thus finished eleventh in the table. Despite the lowly finish the swashbuckling style of football adopted by Arthur Stollery’s side had the crowd’s flocking to County’s games and at Meadow Lane the average gate for the season rose to a new record high of 30,002.

Lawton and Sewell engaged in a good-natured duel to finish as top-scorer. In the game that season when Notts beat Newport County 11-1, Sewell, who already had four, was knocked, from behind as he soared to head home his fourth, by Lawton who then met a perfect Frank Broome cross to score his own fourth and stand there smiling. Despite this prank Sewell, a quick thinker and mover, outscored his illustrious colleague by notching 26 goals in total in 1948-49, six more than Lawton.

With Eric Houghton taking charge at Notts County in 1949-50, Lawton and Sewell helped spearhead a successful assault on the Division Three South title with the former scoring 32 and Sewell 19. Crowds at home rose to an average of 35,176. Promotion was clinched when Forest arrived on 22 April 1950. Lawton and Sewell sent their neighbours home beaten 2-0 before a 46,000 crowd. During the summer of 1950, Sewell was a star in the FA side that toured Canada. 

Notts County survived in the Second Division in 1950-51 but the board decided to split up the successful strike partnership and they sold Jackie Sewell to Sheffield Wednesday in a new record British transfer fee of £35,000 in March 1951. Lawton left Meadow a year later. 

In the 1951-52 season, Sewell scored 23 goals as the Owls won Division Two. He stayed for four seasons at Hillsborough where he scored 92 goals in 175 games. On his transfer to Aston Villa in December 1955 he did well and scored 40 goals in 145 games, one of which was a winning appearance in the 1957 FA Cup final against Manchester United. He later hit 9 goals for Hull City, taking his career total to almost 250 goals. Sewell played six times for England and scored three times, one of which was in the famous Hungary 6-3 victory at Wembley in 1953. 

Sewell later became a coach in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Zambia and the Belgian Congo. (Congo) He died on 26 September 2016 in Nottingham.  

Mary Ann Mercer, Birkenhead

Mary Ann Mercer, Birkenhead 

This is on Rebel Road at:-

Shropshire Mary Ann Mercer (1883 - 1945) was Birkenhead’s first female Mayor in 1924-25. Her achievement - and record as a working class socialist and pioneer of women’s rights - has been honoured with a blue plaque at her home of 103 Norman Street in north Birkenhead.  

The unveiling of the plaque was performed by Wirral Mayor Cllr Ann McLachlan, who had originally suggested honouring Mercer in such a public fashion, and Frank Field MP on Friday 11 May 2018.

Mary was only three when her father died. The subsequent struggles by her mother helped form Mary’s political views. She was to late become a passionate campaigner for state pensions for women.

After training as a nurse, Mary worked as a district visitor in Belfast, marrying a local labour activist and journalist, becoming interested in politics and joining the Labour Party.

Mary was elected as a Labour councillor for the Argyle ward in Birkenhead in 1919. She stayed a councillor until 1945 and by which time women had, following the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act,  achieved the same voting rights as men.  

In 1924, Mary Ann Mercer was made Birkenhead’s first woman Mayor – at the time she was also only the second Labour female mayor in the country. 

According to Ann McLachlan “Mary Ann Mercer held lots of events in Birkenhead Town Hall for children, ensuring they were fed.

“She was a pioneer for women at a time when working class women were not usually in public life, and women generally did not have the vote.”

In 1935, Mercer  stood for Parliament and contested the Liberal-held Birkenhead East Division for Labour but was defeated, coming third behind the Liberal and Conservative candidates.

Mary Ann died on September 26, 1945, and Mercer Road in Bidston & St James Ward is named after her.  She was buried at Flaybrick Cemetery – where the epitaph on her grave says:

“First woman Mayor and first Socialist Mayor 1924-25 deeply mourned by her children and towns people.”

Many thanks to Unite member Luke Agnew of Birkenhead who sent in this photograph of the plaque and the relevant details. Luke is now working on finding out more about the Birkenhead dock disaster of 6 March that left 14 navvies died and three injured. The cause of this disaster was never definitively established and little information surrounding the event exists.

“The cemetery that I work at is where the 14 dead are buried in mass graves that are overgrown and I want to fix that and then get some headstone erected. It is the least those who died deserve,” explains Luke, who you can contact to help on 07792110973 or by email at

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Newton Heath 1878-1902

Whatever happened to Newton Heath? The Heathens were established in 1878 by employees of the Carriage and Wagon Works department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) company based in Newton Heath, Manchester. 

After establishing their superiority as the best side in the company, Heath became the top Manchester side before joining the Football Alliance, a rival to the Football League (FL), in the inaugural season, 1889/90. 

When the Alliance was merged with the FL for the start of the 1892/93 season, Newton Heath, which by this time had become independent of the railway company and dropped the ‘LYR’ from its name, became part of the First Division. It was not a happy experience and at the end of the 1893-94 season bottom-placed Newton Heath dropped down into the Second Division.

Newton Heath had moved to Bank Street, Clayton in June 1893. The ground, which was employed until the move to Old Trafford in February 1910, was squeezed in among densely populated, cheaply constructed terraced housing, from which many of the club’s working-class supporters would have been drawn. Children of all ages would kick a makeshift ball around on cobbled streets where the arrival of a motorcar would have been a cause of great fascination.

The ground, with its pitch notable for having no grass, was set among factories with belching chimneys. Charles Dickens had used Manchester as the scene for his 1854 novels Hard Times and over the next fifty years numerous writers commented on Manchester’s ‘smoky holes’ with a mixture of fear and fascination.

The Bank Street site is now occupied by the car park of the Manchester Veledrome, with a plaque on a nearby home wall indicating the presence of the former ground.

In the spring of 1896, Newton Heath signed Harry Stafford from Crewe Alexandra. In 1896-97, Heath narrowly missed out on promotion and in 1898 the club captured the much sought after Lancashire Senior Cup for the first time. However, by the beginning of the new century Newton Heath were in serious financial trouble. Modest fund raising attempts were unsuccessful. At the start of 1902 Newton Heath were already out of the race for promotion. 

It was then that Stafford persuaded five local businessman, including local brewery owner John Henry Davies, to come forward to clear the debts of £2,670. Stafford himself put up £200 of his own money. 

Clearly all those involved must have been well aware that a successful football club would reflect well on themselves and possibly increase future business opportunities. Newton Heath was rebranded as Manchester United in April 1902. 

With Davies providing new manager Ernest Mangnall with £3,000 to invest on new players the new club almost won promotion in 1903/04 and 1904/05, before making the leap up in 1905-06. Manchester United then won the First Division title in 1907-08 and the following season won the FA Cup. They’ve done well ever since. 

To buy a copy of this vintage art print then go to:-

Jimmy Dickinson - Portsmouth legend and England international

Jimmy Dickinson 

A loyal club servant who after a short spell as an amateur signed professional for Portsmouth in January 1944 but with conscription still being in place, Jimmy joined the navy, spending much of the rest of the war overseas. 

When League football resumed in August 1946, Jimmy was part of the Portsmouth side that beat Blackburn Rovers 3-1 in a Division One (Premier League today) match. Pompey came twelfth at the end of the season. Jimmy established himself permanently at left-half in Jack Tinn’s side in the 1947-48 season in which Portsmouth rose to eighth in the table. 

The following season — with new manager Bob Jackson in charge — saw the South Coast side roar to their first top flight title. All five regular forwards banged home at least ten League goals and Portsmouth won the title with 5 points more than runners-up Manchester United. Dickinson was highly efficient in reading the game, picking up the spare ball, breaking up attacks and keeping the forwards supplied with the ball. He played in every match during the season. 

Portsmouth retained the title the following season when in the tightest of finishes they took top spot on goal average from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Pompey remained in Division One until relegation was suffered in 1958-59. Portsmouth even fell into the third tier for the 1961-62 season but were back in the Second Division for the final three seasons of Dickinson’s playing career. This came to an end on an emotional April 1965 day at already-promoted Northampton Town. Portsmouth scored with just four minutes of the match remaining with the point enabling Pompey to survive relegation. At the end of the game Dickinson was applauded by everyone present. 

Dickinson made his debut for England in a 4-1 success in Oslo in 1949, the game that marked the end of Frank Swift’s international career. The Hampshire born player went on to make a further 47 appearances and twice - 1950 and 1954 - played in World Cup tournaments although England failed to make it beyond the quarter finals in either and there was the embarrassment of a 1-0 defeat against the USA in 1950. 

Dickinson was briefly manager of Portsmouth in the 1970s but the financial hardship during this time affected him badly. Following a 1-1 draw at Barnsley he suffered a massive heart-attack and was forced to retire on doctor’s orders. He later died suddenly on 9 November 1982. He was just 57. 

A proud man, Dickinson made 828 appearances for Portsmouth. Much loved by the vociferous Pompey fans it is only fitting that his face remains the image on the seats in the Fratton End. 

To buy a copy of this print go to:-

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Hemy Painting

The Hemy Painting 

Sunderland against Aston Villa can righty be described as football’s first great rivalry with the Wearsiders capturing the First Division Championship in 1891/92, 1892/93 and 1894/95 with Villa taking the title in 1893/94, 1895-96, 1896-97 and 1898-99. In 1912/13 Sunderland again won Division One but were beaten by the Villains in the FA Cup Final at the Crystal Palace before a then World Record crowd of in excess of 120,000.  

The rivalry was marked by the painting that resides in the entrance to the Stadium of Light. This is of the game at Newcastle Road on 2 January 1895. The game ended 4-4 with Gillespie x 2, Hannah and Millar notching the home goals and
Smith x 2 , Reynolds (Penalty) and Devey doing the damage for the away side.
the attendance was 12,000.

The painting is recognised as the oldest of an Association Football match anywhere in the world and thus marking it out as something special.

The “Hemy Painting” as it is commonly referred to is in due deference to the artist Thomas Maria Madawaska Hemy.

The painting has over the years had two titles; “A Corner Kick” and “The Last Minute – Now or Never”.

Both Sunderland and Villa at that time were huge clubs. A draw wherever they played and this meeting of the two sides was eagerly anticipated.
Villa were the current league champions and although they had started their league campaign badly, including losing to Sunderland in the September, they had gradually climbed the table to lie just behind Sunderland who were top. With this in mind Villa were confident of winning and at odds of 6 to 4 appeared a good bet.

The match took place on a Wednesday and Villa arrived on the Tuesday. They looked in the peak of condition. The weather was fine and much warmer than Tuesday although a strong North East wind was blowing. Meehan returned at right back for Sunderland and Johnstone moved to left half with Auld dropping out. The pitch was in pretty fair condition with a sprinkling of snow on it and the crowd of around 12,000 was bigger than that of the New Years Day match. Sunderland won the toss, took advantage of the wind and Devey kicked off for Villa. The game itself was a thriller, 4 v 4, with Villa taking the lead after quarter of an hour. Nip and tuck all the way it was generally agreed that a share of the spoils was a fair result.

It has been mooted that there is something odd about the painting of the footballers hands and that Hemy had been used to painting pugilists. There is no evidence that this was the case and there are no art works of Hemy’s showing pugilists.

What is interesting to note is that Thomas Hemy was actually at the Aston Villa game. We know this because in The Echo’s 7 January 1895 edition their reporter at Newcastle Road spoke to him and their conversation was recorded in print. Interestingly there is no mention made of Hemy being their to paint the now iconic match scene.

It is also said that Hemy was commissioned to paint the image to celebrate Sunderland’s 1894/95 triumph. That cant be right. Clearly both the football club and Hemy would have no advance knowledge of SAFC’s league triumph. It seems more feasible to suggest that as Hemy did and would have a track record in painting some memorable sporting scenes, both football and rugby, and as he lived in Sunderland, that he was of a mind to paint the scene from memory following his attendance at the match. Subsequently he presented it to SAFC for purchase.

It was reported in the June 1898 edition of the Sporting Mirror that: “The annual meeting of the Sunderland Football Club has been fixed for the 29th of this month. The officials have purchased the painting by Tom Henry (sic), representing the cup tie (sic) between Aston Villa and Sunderland in 1894 (sic) and also the artist’s supplementary proofs. Both the painting and the proofs they propose to put up as a prize drawing for the Benefit of the funds of the club”.

Strange that The Sporting Mirror should indicate that the painting is of the cup tie the previous season. Probably just a mistake. Considering we now know that Hemy attended the 1895 game then it is surely beyond doubt that the 4 v 4 game was the game he painted a scene from. Not only that but the team lineups along the bottom of the painting correlate to the 4 v 4 match report. 

Finally of course the game was played in winter and if you look closely at the painting you will see bails of straw around the field; straw was of course the covering used on football pitches at this time when frost was expected. Sunderland of course fell foul of this practice in the 1950’s when they used the refunds from returned bails of straw to supplement some of the players wages and therefore exceed the maximum wage that was in force at that time.

On 11 July 1900 and Sunderland AFC’s annual meeting took place at the Grand Hotel, Bridge Street. The clubs chairman JP Henderson presided over an excellent turnout. The annual report showed an excess of expenditure over revenue of some £247.

At the close of the meeting a discussion took place regarding the Hemy painting of the famous match against Aston Villa. It was explained that the painting had been raffled but as no-one had yet established a claim it was being stored in a Sunderland furniture dealers establishment. The chairman thought that he might hand the painting to the Borough Art Gallery or perhaps the Town Hall. No decision was taken.

So what happened to the painting?

Intriguingly and only recently a postcard was located on e-bay of all places showing the painting hanging on the wall of a Sunderland pub called The Bells which was located at 14 Bridge Street, just up from The Wearmouth Bridge. It operated under the ownership of Jas. Henderson and Sons; the father of the club chairman. The Bells had an upstairs restaurant and in that upstairs restaurant the Hemy work was displayed for a period. It dominated the grill room.

So we know that from the furniture dealers it found its way to the Chairman’s Father’s pub.

The story can be further pieced together in that a picture emerged of the painting hanging on the wall above the reception area at Roker Park. 

Underneath was a plaque indicating that the Hemy Painting had been “Presented to Sunderland AFC by Samuel Wilson Esq., September 4 1930.”
Who was Samuel Wilson and how did he end up with it? Wilson was on the SAFC Board of Directors in the 1920’s and he was a local businessman. Quite how he came to get his hands on the painting is a moot point. Nevertheless here the painting was, back at Roker Park.

However as time went on the Hemy painting fell into a state of disrepair and the Sunderland AFC Supporters Association raised an alleged £8,000 to have the painting repaired; and so it left Roker Park in the late 1980’s.

On Monday 15th September 1997, Sunderland revealed that the famous painting by Thomas MM Hemy which has been on loan to Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery since 1990 was returning, now though, to the club’s new home; the Sunderland Stadium of Light. There it resides to this day, a hugely impressive tribute from the early days of association football and to our team which at that time was the best in the world.

Latterly a rumour emerged that the supplementary proofs referred to in the minutes of the 1900 Annual Meeting turned up at the SAFC Supporters Association. It was alleged that they were then bought to the attention of and bought by one of the Directors of Sunderland AFC.

And what of the artist? Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy was born in and around February 1852 off the Murtar Var Rocks near the Brazilian coast.
The “Marie” was in due deference to the Catholic Church of which his father was a devout member and the “Madawaska” in homage to the ship that Thomas was born on. The ship Madawaska was registered in Canada and named after a river in Ontario. His sea birth was due to the family emigrating (temporarily) to Australia, leaving Liverpool in late 1851/early 1852 bound for Sydney Harbour.

The family’s roots were in Newcastle, where his brothers had been born, and having found life tough in Melbourne, where they had settled, the family returned to the North East in 1854.

At aged 14 Thomas Hemy ran away to Sea for four years sailing exotic seas such as The Dardanelles aboard such ships as The Brindisi, a passage of his life that he recounted in his autobiography Deep Sea Days.

That is perhaps then no coincidence given all of this that one of Hemy’s brothers (Thomas had 9 brothers and 3 sisters), Charles Napier Hemy, would become one of the finest British maritime painters to have lived, a talent that was to be passed on to Thomas. All the family had a love of the sea and the Arts; Hemy’s Father Henri was an accomplished musician.

Back in England a substantial amount of Thomas’s time was spent at the mouth of the Tyne River painting boats or inspiring paintings of shipwrecks. Perhaps his most famous work being “The Wreck of the Birkenhead” and locally “Winter on the Tyne”. However he also gave us masterpieces such as “The Eton Wall Game”, “Goal!” painted in 1882 and of course “The Last Minute – Now Or Never”.

However it would be wrong to think of Hemy as a parochial North East painter. We have read about his sea faring exploits which gave him a very broad horizon and he also exhibited at such places as The Royal Academy in London and studied at the Antwerp Academy Of Arts for two years studying under Charles Verlat. He was often commissioned to paint and had his subsequent efforts purchased by such people as Lord Charles Beresford.

Towards the end of his life Hemy left the North East and settled in Ryde, the largest town on the Isle Of Wight where he died on 3 April 1937, ironically a month before Sunderland won the FA Cup for the first time. One of his sisters, Annie, also died in the same year.

History has left Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy pretty much a forgotten man, but not in Sunderland. His footballing masterpiece and his legacy live on.

Taken from the Dribbling Game website that is run by Sunderland fans and historians Mark Metcalf and Paul Days. You can buy prints of the painting and as well as many other linked to Sunderland including one of the teams from the 1893/94 season. 

Eric Gates

Sunderland has signed a number of players from Ipswich over the years but by far the most influential was Eric Gates, a small man with a larger than life character. 

The Wearsiders had slumped out of Division One with just one victory in the final twelve League matches of the 1984/85 season. Just 9,398 had watched the final game of the season against Ipswich Town who by winning 2-1 ended up finishing the season just one point above the relegation zone. The day itself marked a new low in English football with 56 fans killed in the Bradford fire and a 14-year-old Birmingham fan killed when a brick wall collapsed at St Andrews. 

Sunderland shocked the football world when they persuaded Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy to take over the reins from the departing Len Ashurst as their manager. The ex-Coldstream Guard looked to mount a promotion charge by signing experienced players such as Frank Gray, David Swindlehurst, Seamus McDonagh, Bob Bolder, Alan Kennedy and Craig Burley. 

£150,000 was invested in Ipswich Town’s Eric Gates, who had twice been capped by England and had won the EUFA Cup with the Tractor Boys in 1981. At Portman Road, Gates had played close behind the front runners, pulling opponents out of position. Possessing the ability to retain the ball he could also shoot surprisingly powerfully for one so slight at just 5’ 6” and weighing just over ten stone. 

Gates had made his debut for Ipswich as a substitute against Wolves in October in October 1973 but it wasn’t until 1977-78 that he became first-team regular. He netted his first hat-trick against Manchester City two seasons later and he scored regularly over the next two seasons as Ipswich finished runners-up in the top flight on both occasions. 

In the 1983-84 season, Gates was top scorer with 16 goals, including three against Cardiff City in the FA Cup. Gates had finished as top scorer for Ipswich in the 1984-85 season. When he left Portman Road he had scored 96 goals in 378 first-ten outings. 

At Sunderland, Gates lined up at number ten alongside centre forward David Swindlehurst. Enthusiasm amongst Sunderland fans was high but it wasn’t until the sixth game of the season before the first goal was scored when Swindlehurst headed into the Fulwell End net as Sunderland finally obtained their first point of the season in a 3-3 draw against Grimsby Town. Gates grabbed his first goal of the season from the penalty spot. McMenemy’s side finally won a League match at the eight time of trying when they beat Shrewsbury Town 2-1 away.

In October, Gates scored a crucial winning goal at home to Middlesbrough and he was also on the scoresheet in a 2-1 success on Boxing Day against Sheffield United at Roker Park. It was his eighth League goal. His ninth took over four months to arrive and came as Sunderland beat Shrewsbury 2-0 at home before completing a third consecutive home victory the following Saturday when Stoke were beaten 2-0. The Wearsiders ended up just four points clear of the relegation zone with Gates as top scorer with nine League goals and one in the League Cup.

Gates and Swindlehurst were again paired together up front at the start of the 1986/87 season. It was not a happy partnership and Gates failed to net in the League until the 1—1 draw on Boxing Day at Elland Road. Sunderland’s best performance of the season was at Goldstone Ground in February where Gates was one of the scorers in a 3-0 defeat of Brighton. The victors rose to twelfth in the table but in late March, Sunderland were beaten four games in a row and fell to seventeenth. Gates scored the only goal for Sunderland in the four matches.

A draw at WBA was followed by a 2-1 home defeat against Sheffield United before a Roker Park crowd of just 8,544, the second lowest at home in Sunderland’s post war history. McMenemy was sacked and Bob Stokoe began a second spell in charge at Sunderland when he was appointed as caretaker manager. 

Sunderland fell into the relegation zone when beaten 3-2 at Bradford City. Gates hit a crucial equaliser against Leeds at home and in the final match of the season, Sunderland led Barnsley 2-0. Victory would ensure another season in Division Two but with Mark Proctor also missing a penalty a shocked Roker Park crowd of 19,059 saw their side slump to a 3-2 defeat. 

Twentieth placed Sunderland faced Gillingham, who had finished in fifth place in Division Three, in the play offs for a place in Division Two the following season. After losing 3-2 at the Priestfield Stadium a 4-3 success at home saw Stokoe’s side beaten on away goals. Sunderland thus fell into the third tier of English football for the first time ever.

Stokoe was to make way for York City manager Denis Smith for the new season, which opened with a 1-0 success at Brentford, where Keith Bertschin, signed towards the end of the previous campaign, scored the goal. The new boys though struggled and on 26 September Chester City travelled back home having won 2-0 at Roker Park to leave Sunderland in twelfth place in the table. Smith had signed Marco Gabbiadini from his former club and he made his debut against Chester. 

Facing Fulham away, Marco showed his pace and goalscoring ability by hitting both goals  and then when paired together he and Gates both netted twice as Wigan were beaten 4-1 at Roker Park. On 3 November Southend were crushed 7-0 at Roker Park with Gates scoring four times and then  just before Christmas the former Ipswich player scored all three in a 3-0 win at home to Rotherham. 

Going into the New Year in top spot, Sunderland won all four games in January. Late February saw Smith’s side lose two in a row at Bristol Rovers and Aldershot, where former Sunderland man Steve Berry scored the winner. A last minute Wigan equaliser in mid March kept Sunderland off top spot before they squeezed a 1-0 win at Grimsby courtesy of a fine Gabbiadini effort. A 4-1 thrashing of Southend away pushed Sunderland into first place in a race with three other teams - Brighton, Walsall and Notts County - for the two guaranteed promotion spots.

A shock home defeat against Bristol City was soon forgotten as Mansfield were beaten 4-0 on their own ground with Gates netting two, Gabbiadini one and Colin Pascoe netting the other. Before a 7,569 crowd at Vale Park, Sunderland clinched promotion when Gates scored the only goal against Port Vale. 

Sunderland clinched the title by beating Northampton Town 3-1 at Roker Park before Rotherham were beaten 4-1 at Roker Park. With Gabbiadini scoring twice he finished with 21 League goals, two in front his striking partner Eric Gates with John McPhail scoring a remarkable sixteen from centre half and of which ten were penalties. 

Back in Division Two, Sunderland initially struggled badly but were to eventually end the 1988-89 season in eleventh place. Gabbiadini was again top scorer in the League with 18 goals whilst Gary Owers, with ten, scored two more than Gates. Sunderland scored 60 and conceded 60 League goals in their 46 matches of which the highlight was beating Ipswich Town 4-0 at home with Gabbiadini scoring three before being sent off. 

In the summer of 1989, Steve Hardyman was signed to strengthen the Sunderland defence but it was the return of Paul Bracewell from Everton to play in midfield that meant Sunderland fans could entertain hopes of a push for promotion in a season where the derby matches were again on the agenda following Newcastle’s relegation from the top flight at the end of the previous season. 

A 0-0 draw against Newcastle at Roker Park was unjust reward for a fine performance by Smith’s side who in mid October were hammered 5-0 at West Ham. Gates scored twice as Barnsley were beaten 4-2 at Roker Park but by now it was more a case of Gates acting as one of the providers for Gabbiadini than scoring himself and he was in fact to score only eight in 46 League games in the season.

The little man was though on the scoresheet when Sunderland travelled to St James Park in late November hitting a late equaliser as Exeter were denied a place in the last eight of the League Cup as Sunderland recovered from being two down to draw 2-2. Gates scored twice in the replay as Sunderland beat the Grecians, backed by almost a thousand fans, 5-2. Sunderland tumbled out of the competition when they were beaten 5-0 in a replayed tie away to Coventry City. The highlight of both matches was Gary Bennett almost throttling David Speedie in front of the Clock Stand paddock. Both men were sent off. 

On 4 February 1990 Gabbiadini netted in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in a game Sunderland dominated. Gates was missing from the scoresheet in the best game of the season, a 4-3 victory against WHU in which Kieron Brady scored and was brilliant. Brady also netted the only goal at Valley Parade where - on a day made infamous because of the Poll Tax riots in London - over half the 9,826 fans were away followers. Success at Bramall Lane put Sunderland into a top six play off spot. Despite losing three and drawing one of the final seven games Sunderland progressed to the play offs where they faced Newcastle. 

Both games have been well covered on numerous occasions so I will be brief. At Roker Park, Newcastle  played poorly and the tie should have been ended long before the 90 minutes and Sunderland were awarded a penalty. Step forward Hardyman, whose shot was a little too close to John Burridge who gathered at the second time of asking before the Sunderland full-backs boot thudded into his head. Queue an almighty scrap at the end of which Hardyman was rightly sent off. 

The Newcastle fans celebrated lustily at the final whistle but their opponents had won six of their final seven away matches of the season, knew they could soak up pressure and in all three games between the two sides they had been the superior outfit. 

Entering St James Park for the second leg Sunderland fans were informed by the police and stewards that in the event of a pitch invasion we should move from the open terraces we were occupying on the Leazes End to the space behind. 

When the game started the noise of the home fans was totally deafening. It was Gates who shut the Mags up when he netted early on at the Gallowgate End. 

Sunderland played well, especially the black players Gary Bennett and Reuben Agboola, who ignored constant racist abuse on a ground where in 1985 Bennett and Howard Gayle had both been sent off even though they had bananas thrown at them and were the subject of some vicious tackles by the home players. As an anti-racist since I was a kid, Gary in particular is a hero of mine. 

As the final minutes ticked away any fears that Newcastle might deny Sunderland a deserved place in the play off final at Wembley were ended when the G-Men combined with Marco smashing home the ball before running towards the away fans who were going absolutely mental. Not so some of the home fans who invaded the pitch and despite the police having before the match anticipated that might happen many Newcastle fans did make it to the away end only to decide they had bitten off more than they could chew and  instead chose to resort to verbal abuse rather than engage in fisticuffs. 

When it calmed down the players, who had left the pitch, returned and Sunderland duly won the game and tie 2-0. The play off final was awful and Sunderland were outplayed by Swindon and lost 1-0. Tony Norman probably prevented the Robins scoring another three or four. 

Gates, who became a pro with Ipswich in October 1972, announced his retirement and thus finished his Sunderland career with 54 goals in 199 starts and 19 substitute appearances. Swindon though were to be subsequently found guilty of illegal payments and relegated to the third tier with Sunderland taking their place in Division One. Gates later said if he had known what was to happen he would have sought to obtain a contract to play for Sunderland in the 1990-91 season.