To Sunderland fans of a certain vintage, there’s little to choose between Rowell, Phillips and Gabbiadini, our prime sources of goals in differing eras. But Phillips and Rowell are staples of fans’ “best of teams” and have legendary status, while Marco doesn’t appear as fondly recalled. Here’s why he should be.
When Gabbiadini joined us as a 19-year-old from York in September 1987, we were a mess. Two relegations in three seasons had put us in the third tier of English football for the first time and although we’d started brightly under Denis Smith, a 2-0 defeat on Marco’s home debut against mighty Chester left us in mid-table and worrying how long we were going to be stuck at this level. Not many more than 12,500 were inside Roker that day.
Thankfully, his next three games brought six goals and things turned around. We scored 92 that season and they came from all over. Marco got 21 of them, and opened doors for others. He found the step up to the second-tier nee bosh either, with 18 following in 1988-89.
He was a grafter and not short of talent. A good header of a ball, despite looking shorter than 5ft 10in. He was much closer to 14 stone than 12 when he was with us, yet he had real pace. He was strong too, with a stocky frame which made him excellent at holding up the ball and tough to shake off it. His vision wasn’t bad either, he’d regularly bring team-mates into play when the numbers were seemingly against us. He had two good feet, a radge streak which meant he wouldn’t shirk conflict. And then there were those thighs - wondrous, thunderous thighs that would have brought a nod of acknowledgement from Paul Butler.
He scored from everywhere, with thunderous long-rangers and predatory tap-ins among his specialities. But the memory most of us will have of him is resplendent in Hummel, powering towards goal in as straight a line as possible, all thighs, elbows and puffed out cheeks, holding off pursuers, before leathering the ball past the keeper and into the net.
However, the goal most of us will recall first is the final one of the 21 he got for us in 1989-90, our second against the Mags at their place, a nice little knock and zip with Gatesy and cool finish which killed them off, sparking pandemonium among our lot behind the goal. It may have been 23bhp (years before horse punching) but there was a nice little pitch invasion from the ever classy black and whites.
“Marco Goalo”, “Gift of the Gab” – the headlines flowed just like the goals. After scoring against Luton at Roker in the top flight in 1990, commentator Tony Francis proudly told us “Sunderland manager Denis Smith, tongue firmly in cheek, tells us he’s the son of an Italian pasta maker.”
We loved it all, Italians in red and white were new to us, don’t forget. We’d had Claudio Marangoni a decade or so earlier, but he was Argentinian. Gabbiadini wasn’t popular with everyone though. Joining opposition defenders in shunning the “Marco” badge this fanzine produced, were the programme editors and matchday announcers who made a right tits of his name.
As Echo & The Bunnymen once sang, Nothing Lasts Forever, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when he left in 1991. We were up and down at the start of the season and there were rumours we were going to accept an unSunderlandy chunk of money for him (seven figures), figuring we could do some serious rebuilding with it.
Marco didn’t look altogether happy with life – but that’s not to say he couldn’t still do it, far from it. Just a week after scoring his third hat-trick for us, we accepted an offer of £1.8million from Crystal Palace and he was away. Our financial plight wasn’t good and although there were new faces and an FA Cup final at the end of the season, in truth we had little to shout about for the best part of five seasons, until Reidy shook us up.
That era included a grim opening day defeat at Derby in 1993, when we were humped 5-0. Marco scored, but didn’t rub it in. We’d got under his skin and the respect was there from both sides.
But for him, it’s not unreasonable to suggest this year would not be our second at this level. McMenemy brought us to our knees and Smith, with a big hand from Gabbiadini, picked us up.