Gary Bennett - Part 3
Having spent the best part of his career in the heart of the Sunderland defence, Gary Bennett was never destined to become one of the club’s most prolific goalscorers. However, when he did hit the net, they were invariably of the spectacular variety and none more so than his brilliant match-winning goal against Manchester United at Roker Park early in the 1990-91 season.
“I have to confess, that goal was a bit special.” Says Gary, “I remember we were drawing one all with only minutes remaining and I’d gone upfield to lend my weight to the attack. I actually won the ball off Gary Pallister near the left-wing corner flag, cut in on goal and curved a right-foot shot into the far corner of the net to win us the match. It was a great moment but also doubly satisfying for me personally having spent years as a youngster supporting United’s arch rivals Manchester City.
“In actual fact, we started that season quite well playing attractive, attacking football but we were also conceding heavily at the back and by the time the season had reached it’s climax, we were embroiled in a desperate relegation battle. We ended up going to Manchester City, of all places, on the final day of the season needing a win to survive but, even though the game was an absolute cracker, a 3-2 defeat sent us down.
“There was almost 40,000 inside Maine Road that afternoon and over half of them must have been from Sunderland. The support we got was pheonominal and the reception they gave us after the final whistle defies description. Even Denis Smith, who rarely showed any emotion, was in tears as we trooped off the pitch.”
Smith era ends
As Sunderland fans slowly came to terms with a return to Second Division football, few could have predicted the incredible events that lay ahead. Within a few short months supporters would see their star striker sold, the team manager sacked and their team make it to Wembley in the F.A.Cup.
“An amazing season all round,” recalls Gary, “But also one of the most memorable of my career. I’d known for some time that Denis had been contemplating major changes to the team and when Crystal Palace came in for Marco Gabbiadini he decided to cash in. The £1.8 million Sunderland received for Marco was spent almost immediately to bring in Don Goodman, John Byrne and Anton Rogan - all quality signings A few weeks later however, the whole club was thrown into absolute turmoil.
“I remember it was a Monday morning and we were all in the Roker Park dressing room preparing for training when Denis walked in, closed the door and announced that he’d just been sacked. He then proceeded to thank each of us personally for the support we’d given him during his time at the club and wished us well for the future. I have to say that, even though he must have been heartbroken at that moment in time, his behaviour was impeccable. In fact, later that day he invited all the players and local press to his home to say his final goodbyes. That was typical of the man - dignified to the end.
“To be honest, I found the timing of his dismissal hard to understand. He’d just been allowed to spend the best part of £2 million to bring in three new players but, even before those players had been given time to settle in, the board had decided to dispense with his services. It really was an amazing decision.
As the Sunderland directors began their search for Smith’s successor, reserve team coach Malcolm Crosby was given temporary control of first team affairs. The inexperienced Crosby’s appointment was seen very much as a stop-gap measure yet within a few short months, he would be leading out the team onto English football’s greatest stage.
“You couldn’t meet a nicer guy than Malcolm Crosby,” says Gary, “But I’m still not sure he was cut out for football management. However, as a coach he was superb and, as the press speculation surrounding the vacant manager’s job continued, we were putting together a tremendous run in the F.A.Cup. I remember we had great victory over West Ham in a 4th round replay at Upton Park then, of course, there was that unforgettable night at Roker when we beat Chelsea to reach the semi-final. I’ll never forget the look on Gordon Armstrong’s face as he raced away after scoring the winner in the dying minutes - ‘ecstasy’ is probably the only word to describe it!
“Throughout the cup run John Byrne had been in brilliant form, scoring in every round, and it was his goal against Norwich in the semi-final that saw us through to Wembley. Unfortunately his luck ran out in the final when he missed an early chance which would have given us a great chance and once Liverpool had scored a few minutes into the second half, there was no way back for us.
“For all the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle, the cup final was a marvellous experience and one I’ll never, ever forget. But the thing that amazed me was the reception we got when we returned to Sunderland the following day. Even though we’d lost, about a quarter of a million fans turned out to cheer our open topped bus as we made our way through the city to the Seaburn Centre. Sunderland fans never cease to amaze me.”
Butcher and Buxton
The club’s success in the F.A.Cup effectively forced the Sunderland directors to give Malcolm Crosby the job on a permanent basis and one of his first signings was the England international defender, Terry Butcher. Within months however, following a run of poor results, the former Ipswich star had replaced Crosby in the Roker Park hot-seat.
“In a way I’ve always felt Sunderland took the soft option when they appointed Terry Butcher,” explains Gary, “He was a big name with an impressive reputation in the game and, of course, he was already on the books. But I never felt he was the right man for the job and although he was allowed to spend heavily, he failed to achieve success.
“Eventually he was replaced by Mick Buxton, a manager with vast experience in the game but a totally different character to anyone I’d ever played under. If Lawrie McMenemy was at one end of the spectrum with his flamboyant lifestyle and media image then Mick most certainly was at the other. His flat-cap image was more suited to local football and you always felt the Sunderland job was just to big for him.”
That man Speedie
It would be impossible to complete ‘The Gary Bennett Story’ without mentioning David Speedie. For years the fiery Scot and Gary were arch rivals both on and off the pitch and whenever the two were in opposition, fireworks were virtually guaranteed. “Strangely enough, the first time we crossed swords was after the Milk Cup semi-final at Roker Park back in 1985,” recalls Gary, and he wasn’t even playing in that match. But after the game Howard Gayle and I were having a quiet drink in the players lounge when Speedie’s father came over and started mouthing off, eff’ing and blinding about what his son was going to do to us in the second-leg. I told him to ‘piss off’, and then the whole thing got a bit ugly.
“We’d won the first-leg 2-0 so we were in a pretty strong position but after only a couple of minutes of the return at Stamford Bridge, we went one down and who should score but Speedie. I remember thinking, ‘typical’, but on the night we turned in a great performance to win 3-2. In fact, it was a pretty satisfying night all round. Their fans invaded the pitch to try and get the game abandoned and then Speedie, who’d completely lost it by then, lashed out at Shaun Elliott and got himself sent off.
“Of course the incident that most Sunderland fans remember happened in a League Cup game against Coventry City at Roker Park when we both ended up being sent off. At the time I was struggling with a troublesome knee injury and was only passed fit to play an hour or so before the kick-off. Speedie was obviously aware of my fitness problems because, as we chased a loose ball near the Clock Stand touchline, he deliberately went for my dodgy knee. To be honest I just saw red, grabbed him by the throat, dragged him across the cinder track and pinned him up against the perimeter fence.
"Goodness knows what might have happened if the officials hadn’t pulled me away. In fact at one point he ended up in the crowd but they just kept pushing him back. When supporters ask me about David Speedie I always tell them, ‘It’s your fault, you lot could have sorted him out once and for all that night!’”
Gary’s Roker Park career finally came to an end in November 1995 when he was allowed to join Carlisle United on a free transfer. There followed a spell with Scarborough before he moved back to the north-east to join Darlington as player-coach in the summer of 1998, before eventually taking over as manager. Nowadays he spend his time running coaching courses around the country, as well a commentating on Sunderland games for Radio Newcastle.
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