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Gary Rowell is a Sunderland legend and as his career drew to its end was signed by Burnley and played nineteen games. Burnley was his final club having arrived on a free transfer from Carlisle for the 1988/89 season. After a run in the side he was then confined to appearances from the bench. His one goal for the club was against Colchester and was the 100th and last of his league career. He left in May 1990.

When we wrote this article, he was living at Reedley in the Burnley suburbs. Born at Seaham, near Sunderland he played for Sunderland from 1972 to 1984 scoring 102 goals, being voted best player of the 1980s by Sunderland supporters.  He is the only Sunderland player to score a hat-trick against Newcastle United and for this alone he will never be forgotten.

‘What a gentleman,’ were the first words Gary Rowell said about Jimmy Adamson echoing those of Eddie Gray. ‘He was such an influence on me’.

A Sunderland team picture during Jimmy Adamson’s time there as manager

‘I’d already made my debut for Sunderland before Jimmy arrived so I’d had a taste of things but in no way was I a regular; just in and around the first-team. He came with a big reputation as a coach and as someone who did so well with young kids; and I found that to be absolutely true the more I worked with him. He was, quite simply, the best coach I have worked with.  What I found was that he knew how to get the best from young players by challenging us… here’s your first-team chance, prove me right… sort of thing. If you can’t, there are always the reserves. Some managers especially today will ‘protect’ the young players but Jimmy if he saw talent had no hesitation in using it.

‘When he arrived, we were already on a bad run and that continued as he looked at the place and looked at the players, looked at those with potential, and then eventually identified me, Shaun Elliott and Kevin Arnott as three young players to be given a regular place. We were not doing well; he had to do something radical and he threw the three of us in at the deep end, and suddenly we were winning with me the up and down, box to box goalscorer, Kevin the passer, and Shaun the destroyer. He kept Bobby Kerr of the old Cup Final team on the right of midfield for his experience.  Of course, a few noses were pushed out and some of the older players were not that fond of him; but that’s football. Every manager will leave players out and those players will not be too pleased.

‘It looked like he was going to turn things round and suddenly we had what I still remember as the best week of my career when we had three wins and scored 16 goals. It was just amazing. They were three home games; that was because one was a re-arranged game that was slotted in during the mid-week. The first was a 4–0 win over Middlesbrough, not quite a big derby but almost and it wasn’t so much the four goals it was just the way we played so well. Next it was 6–1 against West Brom in the re-arranged game. Supporters couldn’t believe what they were seeing.  We were winning with such style and confidence. Fans were thinking a miracle was on the way and we could avoid relegation because that was something that had looked well possible even before Jimmy arrived. The fact I scored four of those 16 goals certainly helped make that week so special.

‘By now Jimmy was really pulling everybody together and what he’d done with me earlier still makes me smile to this day and still makes me appreciate how clever he was and that he saw things in players and things they could do, that the players themselves didn’t think possible. What he did with me was see me as a left-sided midfield player which is not what I was then. I played in centre-midfield, an old-fashioned inside-left, if you like, which is a different role altogether.  But he took me on one side and explained what he wanted me to do, that he recognised what a good engine I had and could get up and down. So he set me a new challenge and pushed me and pushed me, told me I had an eye for goal and that I had to get in the opposition box ten times in each half. It was such a simple challenge, always telling me to get forward, but nobody had said that to me before. He told me that if I got into the box ten times then the ball would certainly drop for me, more often than I realised, and I’d get the chances to score from them.  So that was the challenge and when I said with great surprise that I’d never played there before he just told me well there was always the reserves that I could play in. So that was what I had to rise to, and he drove me on – and I never looked back.

‘Anyway, then came the West Ham game and they had some great players in that side and we scored another six goals. That was 16 goals in one week and we only conceded one.  That was maximum points from three games and we just went out there fearless, if you like, filled with confidence thinking God this is easy.

‘For the rest of the season we picked up more good results, but not to the same degree as that fantastic week and then it all came down to the last game of the season that is still so controversial. We lost at Everton but then sat in the dressing room afterwards with little or no idea of what was going on in the Coventry versus Bristol City game. They were the two other relegation candidates. This was before mobile phones in our pockets, texting and twitter, and Sky Sports News on TV on the wall of the dressing room.  We had no idea they were still playing, no idea they were just kicking a ball without trying to score because they knew we had lost.  So, there we sat in the dressing room waiting for news and it was probably an hour before we heard properly and in fact it was not until the next day that we knew the full details of how they’d just played out the game keeping themselves safe.

The Sunderland v Burnley programme from 1977/78 ….

‘Even today it causes bad feeling and I was there at Fulham commentating when Jimmy Hill was abused by the Sunderland fans for what he did that day displaying the score. Sunderland fans will always think he contrived to delay the kick-off deliberately.

‘But what a roller-coaster season and we almost pulled off the impossible. After those three games that we won one after the other, we only lost three more games that season but one of them was that very last game at Everton. Trouble is the fans thought we’d go straight back up the next season because we’d done so well in the last half of the season. If there is such a thing as a ‘glorious relegation’ then that was it. Had we done it; Jimmy would have been a legend.

‘But it wasn’t to be and slowly I did see changes in Jimmy in his second season. At first, he was never off the training ground, always in his track suit, always coaching and in the middle of things but bit by bit that changed. The season became an anti-climax because we weren’t pushing for promotion. We saw more of Dave Merrington than Jimmy. Perhaps he just got sucked into all the problems that managers have to deal with and I sometimes wonder if he should have remained as a coach so that he just concentrated on that and someone else would take on all the stress and the difficult things.

‘And then came the ‘Battle of Turf Moor’. It was just before Jimmy left Sunderland. The previous season we’d drawn at Turf Moor 0–0 and won 3–0 at Roker Park. They were games that went off with no trouble at all. We knew there was an edge to these games because of Jimmy’s past history there. So, you could always tell when a Burnley game was getting nearer although nothing was ever said and for this particular game nothing at all was said by Jimmy either to wind us up, and certainly he made no attempt to make it into a grudge match. Nor did he like rough play and would never tell any player to deliberately rough anyone up or be extra physical. Truth is, he was a hard man to read a lot of the time and whatever thoughts he had about Burnley or Bob Lord we never knew them.

‘But it was Burnley and there was a huge following from Sunderland and we were pumped up; we knew there was that little bit more to this game than normal. But there were certainly no special instructions or tactics or bad intentions on our part.

‘Some games just take on a life of their own, something sparks things off and for a start there was ill-feeling between Mick Docherty who had left Burnley to come to Sunderland, and Leighton James on the Burnley side. It became the most violent game I have ever taken part in. Nobody gave an inch; the ball would be one side whilst players might be kicking each other on the other side. Clatterings were common and the ball became an irrelevance – but not because of Jimmy. It’s just the way it happened; it just degenerated and the more the crowd roared the more physical it got.

‘When Mick Henderson was sent off, the fall guy, it could have been anybody; and it didn’t end there. Before half-time Joe Bolton was sent off as well but because it was so close to half-time and Dave Merrington had already come into the dressing room with Mick Henderson, he had no idea that Joe had been sent off. We all followed in and looking back the next two minutes were the funniest I can remember in football as Dave began to give Joe his instructions for the second half… and Joe kept trying to interrupt to say he’d been sent off… and Dave ignoring him and telling him this and that… until at last Joe got a word in and announced he too had been set off. At that point Dave’s mouth just dropped, he was speechless and his eyes went wide. And then he gasped:

“Well how many fucking men have we got left then?”

‘Next, Jimmy Adamson stormed in. He’d been up in the stand and it had taken him a few minutes to get down to us. The door burst open and I’ve never seen such anger in a man. He was not a man to swear or lose his rag ever; but this time he did. He gave us the biggest ever rollocking I can ever remember. He tore into us. He absolutely slaughtered us and then stormed out again but not before he said that we were a disgrace and that we could now go out and lose because we had our excuse for a defeat ready-made. He gave us no instructions, no tactics, no re-shuffle, just slammed out and vanished.

‘We were stunned and silent. And then Mick Docherty stood up. Mick was great. He was a natural leader. He told us that he wasn’t having that; he wasn’t being told to go and lose just because we had the ready excuse. Angrily he said we’d prove Adamson wrong and by the time he’d finished we’d decided to give it a real go in the second half. Quickly we talked and decided that the last thing Burnley would expect would be us to go at them and take the game to them. We decided to go for it in the first 15 minutes or so and see what might happen. We’d do the unexpected; they’d expect the opposite.

…. and from the Battle of Turf Moor

‘We did just that and scored. The Burnley back four came out thinking they’d be on easy street but we set into them. Adamson’s words were still stinging and ringing in our ears. The Sunderland fans were going mental. I got a second with a penalty and at last Burnley woke up. The violence had stopped as it so often does in a game. Burnley scored and then they threw the kitchen sink at us. But we hung on, held firm, and astonishingly won 2–1. It was the most amazing win.

‘I’ve wondered ever since. Was Jimmy’s rant at us just that – a rant; or was it just a ruse to get us wound up and get out there and go for a result? Was it a great psychological masterstroke designed to make us angry and prove him wrong?  We’ll never know. He never explained his reasoning behind it but he did come in afterwards with the biggest grin on his face I’ve ever seen.

‘I was sorry he left Sunderland. For me he was brilliant but those last few months yes, he was away more. You noticed it because early on he’d always been out training with us. I’ve no idea what happened but you did wonder what was going on. His great strength was finding innovative ways of doing things but the tragedy for him became all the clutter of management he had to deal with, contracts, administration, travel, directors, Press and supporters. So, for me, it was disappointment that he left. Others that he didn’t include in his team or plans might well have been pleased. That’s football. A manager makes decisions that affect your life.

‘For a short time at Sunderland when Jimmy was there things were very special. You think back to a point lost here or there, a missed chance that might have been the goal that kept us up. But it wasn’t to be. I never had any idea that he finished with football after Leeds United and regret that in my time at Burnley I never visited him; didn’t really even know that he lived so close.

‘He was the man who made me what I am’.

Quite why Adamson was appointed by Leeds United remains a mystery after a very mediocre period at Sunderland. He had always been hugely critical of them, their style of play, and Revie. They were very public criticisms. He was by no means a unanimous choice of the directors and there was always a faction that undermined him, something that he was very aware of.

The fans certainly never took to him and the abuse he received on matchdays was sometimes horrendous. And yet: had the directors supported and funded his bid to sign Kevin Keegan, the fortunes of that club would have been transformed.

According to Dave Merrington his assistant, talks took placed, approaches were made, but it all fell through thanks to the directors. Instead of Leeds and the city being rejuvenated, it was Southampton that benefited.

On account of this, Adamson as good as took his bat home and received a handsome pay-off on his departure. That plus a libel settlement, enabled him to live comfortably well away from football. It was all a sad end to his career. A wonderful player, a brilliant coach, but less skilled at man-management. And of course, the man who said no to England.

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