With seven games remaining of the current Premier League season, Paolo Di Canio was given the task of waking up a slumbering Sunderland and halting what seemed like an inexorable slide into the Championship. With one game remaining, his task was complete – with a bit of help from Arsenal – and safety was secured.
Seven, it would seem, is our magic number. Peter Reid took temporary charge in 1994/95 with the same number of games remaining and the same remit; survival. At the time, such was the state of the club, the aim was to remain in the second tier of English football and to halt a slide towards another ignominious stint in the third tier of English football.
Reid arrived at Roker Park in April, with the side he’d inherited having won just one of their seven games played in March, losing the other six and sat in 20th position in the league. Relegation, much like this season until Di Canio’s arrival, looked inevitable.
With the club perched just two points above the relegation zone, Mick Buxton was sacked. Four teams would go down and having played three more games than the side lurking ominously below us, Swindon Town, change was much needed.
Peter Reid had seven games to save Sunderland’s season, Swindon Town had ten to rescue theirs. If Swindon could win just one of those additional games, the situation would be out of the Scouser’s hands.
Given that Buxton’s final game had been played on a Friday night – a 2-0 loss at Barnsley – Wearside was left to nervously await the outcome of Swindon’s first opportunity to escape the bottom four. It was a chance they would waste, with Charlton Athletic taking the points away from the County Ground.
With that anxious wait over, Reid set about the task at hand and his arrival sparked a shock recovery. His first game in charge brought a much needed win at home to Sheffield Utd, in which Craig Russell bagged a second half winner. Swindon meanwhile, were hammered 3-0 at Reading before wasting their second game in hand by losing 1-0 at home to promotion chasing Bolton Wanderers. Sunderland’s destiny was now firmly in their own hands
It’s amazing what a win can do, as we discovered this season when Di Canio inspired his underperforming troops to back to wins over Newcastle Utd and Everton. As was the case last month, so it was in 1995; this time Kevin Ball was the hero. His winner against Derby County at the Baseball Ground brought about consecutive victories for only the second time that season.
Swindon stayed in touch with a 3-1 win against Oldham. A glance at the table after those results reveals that the Lads remained 20th despite being level on points with Portsmouth who were in possession of a vastly inferior goal difference. Of course, at the time, goals scored were used to separate teams and this being Sunderland, our record in front of goal was typically pathetic. Below us, Swindon also boasted a superior goals scored record, meaning that if they could surmount the 5 point gap and draw level, they would leapfrog our goal shy side and push us into the bottom 4.
Reid’s revivalist powers subsequently stuttered as Sunderland drew and then lost their next two fixtures. Swindon failed to capitalise, with their results mirroring ours and the points gap remained the same. The worry now was whether the honeymoon period had come to a premature end.
In the midst of this, Burnley and Bristol City now found themselves within five points of Sunderland and safety, but unlike Swindon had just three games left to play. The chances of either of them elevating themselves above the drop zone were slim, but the additional hot breath on sweating necks was unwelcome to say the least.
With Sunderland stumbling after back to back wins, the real test was to follow. A vital home clash against main relegation rivals Swindon was scheduled for 22nd April 1995. The gravity of the situation was palpable. This being Sunderland, the worst case scenario was at the forefront of everybody’s minds. A defeat would leave us two points above our rivals having played a game more. It would be classic Sunderland to take the gun from the cabinet and not just shoot themselves in the foot, but blow the appendage completely off.
The clubs also had previous, though at the other end of the table; it was only five years previously that Swindon had shattered Sunderland’s dreams of a return to the top flight by beating them at Wembley. On that occasion illegal payments made by the Robins were uncovered and Sunderland were handed a reprieve and promotion.
This time, Sunderland had to do the business themselves. Son of Pele, Martin Smith, secured a 1-0 victory, the reverse result of that Wembley final. The win all but secured safety and relegated Swindon. They needed a miraculous turnaround in form, having spent April losing five of their six games. Instead, they completed the month with a defeat, mirroring our March form and confirming their demotion. Our season would end with two inconsequential draws.
This was just the start for Reid and his red and white charges. Things would go from strength to strength, but it was that seven game salvage job which laid the foundations for what was to come. Whether Ellis Short knew this slice of Sunderland history or not, by twisting with the same number of games to go and bringing in a new manager, he has helped to repeat it.