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Denis Smith’s advice to next Sunderland manager on how to get out of third tier

Denis Smith celebrates clinching promotion from the Third Division at Port Vale in 1988.
Denis Smith celebrates clinching promotion from the Third Division at Port Vale in 1988.

Football may have changed in many ways since 1988, but some fundamental principles remain the same.

For example, had Twitter existed then, I would not have bothered checking to see if some spotty 13-year-old had taken to his mobile phone to announce I was useless at my job. Why on earth should I?

Fans greet Sunderland's new boss Denis Smith outside Roker Park in 1987.

Fans greet Sunderland's new boss Denis Smith outside Roker Park in 1987.

If I was starting out as Sunderland manager in the third tier now, I would ignore social media altogether. In the current “money money money” climate surrounding the professional game, I would be more concerned about whether I would be allowed to sign players for relatively small transfer fees from clubs like York and Bristol City.

Marco Gabbiadini’s 21 goals and John MacPhail’s defensive ability – plus he was a centre-half who scored 15 goals – contributed enormously to our success.

It is in the next manager’s favour that the man masterminding the takeover, Stewart Donald, is unlikely to be swayed by public opinion demanding Sunderland go out and spend big money incessantly. The departing owner, Ellis Short, tried that and he was rewarded with two successive relegations and a financial nightmare.

At the start of the 1987-88 season, it did not cost anything to successfully position Eric Gates alongside Marco up front.

Eric was already at the club. He just wasn’t in the team. I concentrated on trusting my own judgement and talking to people I respected at Roker Park and within the game and, luckily, that included people within my own board of directors.

I find it difficult to criticise from the outside without knowing the ins and outs of what has gone on, but it is surprising Chris Coleman left without having a conversation with Short. I used to have some lively debates with my chairman, Bob Murray, who I had a lot of time for.

Bob once told me he did not want Iain Hesford playing in goal, so I said that if that was the case then Bob did not have to come to the games because Iain would be playing.

Like myself, Bob, who had just taken over the club, was young and ambitious, but the point is that a successful manager lets nothing deter him from making his own decisions.

You need to go and sign good players and have enough about you to go with your own gut instinct.

If we had failed that season, it would have been because I failed – not because I bought just because I had been told by the media and a fans forum that I should be spending.

The trick is not to get affected by all the stuff that comes at you and just focus on doing your job. At some of the clubs I have been at, there have been instances when I have spent more time keeping the board on my side than I have the fans.

If the new Sunderland manager makes similar decisions about where he buys players from, I can guess what might happen. The print media as a whole, and social media, will be awash with journalists and fans saying that’s rubbish and the club has gone to the dogs...without giving those players a chance.

There are good players out there if your grapevine is good enough. So he has to remain positive and not get distracted by all the noise emanating from outside.

He cannot allow what is going on out there – or perceived to be going on – to stop him believing in himself. A lot of the time, you don’t know who is putting stuff on social media so why look at it?

It seems as if Chris Coleman was harshly treated. But it is clear that Ellis had simply had enough of it and he lost an awful lot of money on owning Sunderland.

Ironically, I have had conversations with Ellis in boardrooms from time to time – the last one a couple of years ago or so – and I realised even then he wanted to get out.

Also, it’s all very well the new man, Stewart, saying he is trimming wage bills.

It’s not so easy to do when people have contracts.

It’s a complicated business running a club. Everybody outside – the supporters and the media – seems to think the business runs from A to B. It doesn’t. It’s A to Z.

It’s massive and things that go on behind the scenes are constant even allowing for the fact that a lot of Sunderland’s succession of embarrassing problems have become very public indeed.

Some owners get pressured into making decisions they don’t want to make, as illogical as that sounds, doing things that don’t make good business sense.

An owner is wondering ‘why am I putting money into this’, but there is always somebody shouting from the rooftops ‘You have got to put more money in’.

There can be different problems to be addressed that don’t involve throwing money at something.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, and going against current public opinion, I feel sorry for a lot of owners of football clubs. Having been a manager and worked with owners, I see their problems.

I have had my arguments with them when they have been under pressure.

They’ve wanted to throw money at something because of all the clamour and I, as a manager, have told an owner that we can’t afford it!

I have told directors in certain situations not to put money in because, at the time, it has not been sensible to do so.

In that promotion season, Sunderland had a few bad results and all the pressure started getting cranked up, and the media and fans started getting on our backs a bit.

We carried on doing much the same things and went up comfortably as champions in the end.