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Cult Heroes: Martin Smith

Forward kicks off new series.

Crossing the divide from watching your heroes as a supporter on the terraces to lining up alongside them as a player is something every football fan, of every club, dreams of.

From legends such as Bobby Gurney, Jimmy Montgomery and Gary Rowell, through to Ryan Noble via recent Black Cats alumni Grant Leadbitter and Jordan Henderson, Sunderland has a rich tradition of developing local-born talent and giving them the opportunity to pull on the famous red and white stripes.

But perhaps one of the most enigmatic local players to represent the club is Martin Smith, a name that may seem unfamiliar to younger fans.

Born only a few short miles away from Sunderland's former home, Roker Park, in 1974, the former Monkwearmouth School pupil was a hot prospect at junior level, representing Sunderland Schoolboys in the side that reached the School FA Trophy final in 1990.

Smith at a glance

  • Made debut against Luton in 1993
  • Totalled 145 appearances for Sunderland
  • Scored 28 goals
  • Made 429 career appearances for five clubs
  • The young forward's natural talent and skill drew admiring glances from Manchester United and Arsenal, but it was his boyhood club that Smith pledged his loyalty to, making his debut in 1993 for Terry Butcher's side against Luton Town. The youngster would announce his arrival in style, scoring a free kick in front of the famous Fulwell End after just 19 minutes.

    Smith would feature regularly until Butcher's sacking later that year, and would continue to play a role during a slight upturn in fortunes as Sunderland finished the 1993-94 season in mid-table under new manager Mick Buxton.

    The following campaign, Buxton himself would pay the price for the club's plummet towards the Division One trapdoor, with his replacement Peter Reid performing miracles in a limited time to banish the spectre of relegation.

    Smith's contribution during the first half of that season was rewarded with a call-up to England Under-21s, with the Sunderland fan making his Three Lions debut at the home of Newcastle United, St James' Park. Despite a lively reception, the forward's trickery and talent shone through as England defeated Ireland.

    Although Reid would lead Sunderland to the Division One title and promotion to the Premier League in 1996, injuries and loss of form would severely hamper Smith's progress.

    Fleeting appearances and timely reminders of his undoubted talent became few and far between, including a devastating display in the 6-0 hammering of Millwall in December 1995. It was a surprise when he moved to Sheffield United on a free transfer in August 1999 despite making 119 appearances during his seven years on Wearside.

    Stints at Huddersfield, Northampton - whose fans would describe Smith as the 'most naturally talented footballer in their history' - and Darlington would follow, with Smith also turning out for Blyth Spartans and Kettering Town as his career entered its twilight years.

    His passion for his boyhood club is Smith most definitely still there, with the forward occasionally joining other Sunderland legends to compete in the Masters Football Tournament, where fans are given a nostalgic reminder of why he was dubbed the 'Son of Pele' by the Roker Park faithful.

    One of those lucky few fortunate enough to say they played for their boyhood club, Martin Smith is most definitely a Sunderland Cult Hero.