The mid-1990s sure were bleak. Rubbish managers, even worse players (Sean Cunnington, anyone?), some terrible games at home and away, crowds down at the 12,000 level, and all with the Mags hitting the Champions League and looking like they could win the Premiership.
A second relegation to the third tier looked inevitable when Mick Buxton was put out of his misery, with seven games to go in the dreary 1994-95 campaign. Buxton was a dour 50s throwback whose only tactic, to shore up the defence, was exposed as a sham when rival teams discovered our defence was crap. There were only so many 1-0 home defeats we could take.
Remarkably, Bob Murray, whose reputation was at its lowest ebb, pulled off an unlikely coup by bringing in Peter Reid as Buxton’s replacement. Reid was a name.
He’d played for England and is immortalised in videos of ‘that’ Maradona goal (no, the good one, not the handball) chugging behind the Argentinian as he beat everyone to score. He’d won the league with Everton. Best of all, he’d been a really good manager of Manchester City and his sacking there had been regarded by the football world as a mistake.
But what could he do at Roker? He certainly got the crowd going. His first game was a nervy home win over Sheffield United. Then came Derby away. For some reason I’d decided not to go. With Reidy in charge I changed my mind at the last minute and headed up there (I lived down south). I sat behind the goal in the home end and witnessed a great non-stop vocal performance from the away fans plus a rare away win due to a Kevin Ball free kick. I sat on my hands, trying not to look excited. I needn’t have bothered. Everyone around me was supporting Sunderland.
Safety was assured with a home win over Swindon. But we still finished 20th, just 6 points from relegation.
But the real miracle came the next season.
I think I was typical in imagining that a mid-table finish was all we could expect - and frankly that was good enough given the dross of recent years. The first few games seemed to bear that out - home defeat to Leicester; a 0-0 at Norwich on a lovely summer's day; a win against Wolves; a dull draw at Port Vale; and then a bizarre 3-0 hammering at Ipswich where we played well but were repeatedly caught on the break by eg-Mag Alex Mathie. But then it all started happening. We won at Millwall and at Palace, in a comedy game where we missed two penalties, and I started to believe we might achieve something.
In the new year we went on a long unbeaten run which included 9 straight wins and which sealed promotion. A 4-0 romp at Grimsby stood out for me, we were on fire. And we nearly beat Manchester United in the Cup at Old Trafford, a match which went a long way to creating the Reidy legend. He did unlikely things to unlikely players - Steve Agnew, Craig Russell, Dickie Ord - none of these were world-beaters but Reid knew how to get the best out of them.
It was a fabulous season as we went from also-rans to champions.
By the time we reached the Premier League, "cheer up Peter Reid" was a terrace staple and the club was on the up for the first time in years. Relegation put a dent in that progress and Reid certainly made mistakes towards the end of that season, but so began the third miracle.
As we settled into our new home the greatest Sunderland attack of recent decades suddenly came into being - Quinn, Phillips, Summerbee, Johnston - for four years we were treated to the best football seen in the town since the 50s. Out of the agony of the 1998 play-off defeat was born another Reid legend - the epic drinking session on the way back to Wearside when the players pledged to win promotion outright, which they did in style in 1999.
All managers get criticised when they're in the job and Reid had his critics, especially as some dodgy transfer decisions led to the slide down the league which cost him his job in 2002. However, looking back, we were lucky to have him in charge for nearly eight years when he was at the top of his game. 159 wins in 353 games, according to Mr Wikipedia - I'll take that today.
Reidy has a book out - get it. He's a red and white hero and we all need cheering up at the moment.
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