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Three months and counting now, and a pervading feeling of chances blown. Derby and Middlesbrough in consecutive home games provided us with our best opportunity to notch up a year 2000 win, but they yielded only a point each, and claims from Reid that we have turned the corner – prematurely so, to my mind. One factor for this might be the lack of either a settled side or a consistent tactical approach. Liverpool and Boro are two examples of recent games in which Sunderland have started the game in a negative formation, which is soon after shelved in favour of 4-4-2, the only shape we seem to be comfortable in.

Even when the shape remains consistent, the personnel rarely do, and it is difficult to know what our best side is. Kilbane and Holloway have received criticism for recent performances, but Kilbane has been denied the opportunity of forging a partnership with a regular left back, whilst Darren Holloway is being asked to defend at right full back with no outlet or protection in the form of a right winger. Many fans also feel Thomas Helmer, who has looked excellent in the reserves of late, is been excluded from the team in favour of players with lesser ability and experience. For my money, when you are three months without a victory, you pick your best eleven players, arrange them in your best formation and stick with it until they pull you out of trouble.

Alongside the first team politics, the uncertainty on the pitch has migrated to the terraces. At Anfield, fights broke out between Sunderland fans following a chant of “Reidy, spend some cash,” and in the wake of the Boro game, the Sunday Times reported chants of “Reid Out.” There are some fans that remain content with pure survival, but many see our pre-Christmas position as an opportunity that the club have passed up. Whatever happens, SAFC will do well to maintain our advantage over Newcastle, a club that trailed us by some eighteen points in 1999, but is now a hair’s breath away, as finishing beneath the Mags after our respective starts to the season is inconceivable and unacceptable.

Of course, it goes without saying that money needs to be spent – and not just on new players. Kevin Phillips’ longer, improved contract comes as some relief to Sunderland fans, though he has intimated that his long-term future at the SoL depends upon the quality of the team-mate that is brought in to load the bullets into his gun. On the other hand, however, the failure as yet to reward Niall Quinn for his part in the making of SuperKev, and for his contribution in his own right, is another example of the small-time attitude at the Stadium of Light.

The bottom line is simple. Since securing the First Division Championship last season, a number of quality players have left the club, and more have fallen out with the manager. If Peter Reid is not prepared or not able to replace these players with equal or better, before they are excluded from the team, then we should be told; we that have to pay for next year’s season ticket by the 31st May, without fail.

I Scored the winner at St. James’s Park: With…Marco Gabbiadini

In this brand new series we completely rub the Mags' nose in it by going on and on about games that bring a tear to the eye of those of us who were there; tears of joy for Sunderland fans and misery for the barcodes. We begin in 1989-90 when Sunderland made a late bid to secure a Play Off place, which eventually led to a back door promotion thanks to cheating Swindon Town. Along the way our exciting team of youngsters, which included the likes of Marco Gabbiadini and Keiron Brady, made sure life was never dull. The most memorable match of that season was our fantastic, brilliant, superb, mint, great and top victory at SJP. We met up with Roker legend Marco Gabbiadini to relive it all.

S&C: In the last month of the ’89-90 season we started playing really well, beginning around the time West Ham came to Roker at the end of March.

Marco: The West Ham game was a classic. Kieron Brady broke into the scene in that match and scored a great goal. I scored quite a good goal in that game too, I ran from the left, right across the goal, after a good run and hit it back across their keeper from the direction I’d run in and wrong-footed him. It was an important time to hit form, just the right time in fact. We also had a fantastic result at Sheff Utd. Paul Bracewell scored that night, which was, let’s just say, unusual for him. I got two. They were at the top at the time and it gave us a big lift. Eric Gates was out, but Colin Pascoe and I played up front and Brady did well out wide on the left.

S&C: So those games led us to a semi final play off against the Skunks with the first leg at Roker.

Marco: It was a tense affair and like most local derbies no one wanted to give too much away. There wasn’t too much great football being played. There were very few chances in the game, but we got a penalty in the last minute, when I was brought down in front of the Fulwell End (who may of influenced the decision). We were very excited, as 1-0 would have been a great result, especially considering we hadn’t conceded an away goal. Then Paul Hardyman took it, Burridge saved it and Paul followed in to try and get the rebound, but kicked the keeper instead of the ball and got sent off. After the game, although we were disappointed, we were confident of getting a result at Newcastle because our away form had been excellent that season. They came off the pitch at Roker like they’d won it after the penalty save and I think that spurred us on just a little bit more. On top of that we'd had a good game in the league at SJP and were unlucky only to draw 1-1 after i'd put us 1-0 up. we had no fear.

S&C: Right then, tell us all you can about our victory and the goals at St. James’s.

Marco: OK. Eric Gates got us a goal early on. We had a throw in and Gary Owers threw it to me, I passed it back and he crossed it in, it fell to Eric’s feet close in on goal and it was easier to score than miss. It was a great start to score early on. Obviously, in a North East derby the atmosphere’s always electric, but that goal silenced St. James’s for quite a few minutes after they’d been making some noise. All you could hear after that were the Sunderland fans, which was fantastic. They had pressure after that, but they never looked like scoring. We were quite easily coping with everything they had. We were looking to catch them on the break. That was the way we played and that is how the second goal came about. Warren Hawk took it down the left wing, played it into me and I remember thinking there was a lot of space in their half, which was the kind of thing Eric and I thrived on. Anyway, I played the ball to Eric, got my head down (made a run) and when I looked up Eric still had the ball. It was the classic Gates/Gabbiadini partnership goal really. Played it into him, carried my run on, Eric found me with a perfect pass right into the path of my run and the easy part was sticking it in the net.

S&C: After that the Newcastle fans invaded the pitch to try and get the game stopped. Did it ever cross the players’ minds that the game might be abandoned?

Marco: It was weird cos you think that when that happens you’ll be celebrating with our fans and it was into the goal with our fans behind it. But I remember turning around and not many of our players were coming towards me and I soon realised why, because there was quite a few of Newcastle’s fans running up from the other end, which was obviously quite alarming for our goalkeeper and back four. But we managed to get off the pitch quite sharpish. Although it was upsetting, the referee for the game, George Courtney, said we’d definitely be going back on to finish the game. It was almost surreal waiting to go back out there. There was only a few minutes left and we were all jumping around, in the tunnel and dressing room ready to open up the champagne. They were in their dressing room completely silent.

S&C: Finally, was that the most important goal you ever scored?

Marco: I think for who it was against, definitely. As far as being remembered by Sunderland for it, I still can’t believe the reaction I get for it. Everywhere I go when I see a Sunderland fan, that’s the first thing they mention and quite a few Newcastle fans remind me of it as well.

Next month Gary Rowell relives his 1979 SJP demolition hat-trick.

A version of this interview is featured on the new ALS album Mackem Music - The Sound of Sunderland.

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