David Preece: Why magical days watching ‘incredible’ Marco Gabbiadini give me hope the good days will return for Sunderland

Denis Smith and Marco Gabbiadini celebrate winning promotion in 1988.
Denis Smith and Marco Gabbiadini celebrate winning promotion in 1988.
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Being a Sunderland fan as a kid meant two things to me; the 1985 Milk Cup Final and Denis Smith.

The Milk Cup final was the first time I ever went to Wembley and, to my knowledge, the first time I’d been to London.

It was also probably the furthest I’d been away from Sunderland at that point in my life so the journey became a far bigger deal to me than the match.

I don’t remember much of the game itself apart from the two distant roars from the other end of the stadium as Clive Walker dragged his penalty against the wrong side of the post and Gordon Chisholm’s chest deflected Asa Hartford’s shot inside Chris Turner’s near post.

Both would have made slightly more enjoyable watching if I hadn’t felt like I was watching it through the bars of a prison cell as we were close to the front and separated from the pitch by a metal fence.

Looking back at footage of the game, it doesn’t give the impression of being imposing but to an eight-year-old who had been hit on the head by a flying seat during the semi-final against Chelsea, it only added to the fear already within me.

That fear wasn’t helped by me becoming separated from my dad in the mad rush to jump on the next tube.

My dad assumed I was right behind him. I wasn’t. I was stood on the platform and bodies rushed around me, looking up at the blokes in their red and white scarves going past, with a quivering lip and watery eyes.

Panic exaggerates the reality of any situation. In those few seconds my fate as a stranded street urchin surviving on the scraps left by tourists was as real any thought I’d ever had.

Suddenly, I was grabbed by my collar and pulled through the ever-decreasing gap between the doors as they closed.

My only reference point to what was happening to me at that time was when Luke, Han, Leia and Chewbacca were in the waste disposal unit with the walls closing in on them. Momentarily, it made me feel somewhat heroic for making it onto the train - before the panic set in again that I was on my own.

Luckily for me, the fella who grabbed me at the last minute knew who I was and could see my dad through the window in the next carriage. Not that it made any difference. I didn’t know who he was and was not convinced with his effort to ensure I’d be all right.

I didn’t feel “all right” about anything, and the match result did not help with how I was feeling either - although that night was the very first time I ever had fries from a McDonald’s which became a landmark on my childhood timeline of events!

In Sunderland, we only had a Wimpy at that point and where McDonald’s is now was Notarianni’s Ice Cream Parlour - where I’d have a Coke Float and ride on the mechanic horse pretending to be a cowboy.

McDonald’s fries in London now eclipsed both of these experiences, so the day wasn’t all bad.

Fear and disappointment though. That’s what summed up being a fan of Sunderland to me until Denis Smith took over in the May of 1987. I was 11 now and old enough to go to the game myself.

That previous season I could only listen helplessly on the radio as we were condemned to Division Three by Tony Cascarino’s fifth and ultimately deciding away goal over the two play-off games. Fear of relegation backed up by crushing disappointment again.

But from the scorched earth of devastation grows the delicate shoots of hope.

The likes of Liverpool, France and Denmark had showed me how football could be, but it was like watching an on-screen kiss in a movie before you’d had your first one yourself. You knew what it looked like, you knew how good it could feel, yet until you’d had that experience of winning, of proper unbridled joy, then you were still a virgin of sorts.

Not that football is just about winning, which is just as well for me. But it was more than that.

Marco Gabbiadini changed that for a start. I wasn’t around to fully appreciate the goalscoring genius of Kevin Phillips but anyone who watched Marco in the flesh can’t have seen many more players like him.

There was more to him than just raw pace and power, he was incredible. I’d never seen someone give a defender five yards head start before knocking the ball past them and getting it at the other end all within the space of six yards. Even if they kept up with him, he’d just brush them off.

Monty MacPhail’s penalties. Big Hessie’s moustache. Jack Lemon out on the right wing.

We stood in the Roker End that year, under one of the floodlights. I still remember the atmosphere in the ground on that last home game of the season against Northampton. I dare say I’ve never felt anything like it since.

I was hooked before then but this was my first hit of the good stuff and everything else that has happened since is measured against it.

What I’m saying is that despite the position the club is in, good things can still come from it. Sometimes we need to look back to take our mind off the present and to realise the wheel always turns in football.

And as long as business off the pitch ensures there is still a club, then we’ll be on the up again soon enough.

Rock bottom will never be reached until all hope is lost and the fear and disappointment we feel means that at the very least we’re still alive. While there’s still a Sunderland, there will always be hope.

Ole, ole, ole.