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90’s reboot – Sunderland headed back to the wilderness years with dwindling crowds & fan angst

Dwindling home crowds watching second rate, second division football, a hate figure of a chairman, financial turmoil and increasing supporter angst. Welcome to the 1990s.

Roker Park

When Nottingham Forest arrived at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, they had not won on Wearside since November 1993. Escaping back to the East Midlands with three points, the parallels between the club Forest had just visited compared with Sunderland in the final decade of the 20th century are becoming alarming.

The mid-1990s are considered a wilderness period in the history of Sunderland AFC, but the disquieting comparisons between then and now suggest the former Rokerites are set to enter a similar era of stagnation and angst.

That last time Forest had won at Sunderland before Monday’s victory was a game played in front of nearly 17,000 at Roker Park. Mick Buxton had been put in charge after Terry Butcher’s dismissal the day before and Bob Murray had simultaneously resigned his position as chairman.

Mick Buxton at Roker Park

The Rokermen had lost their previous six games and slumped to fifth bottom in the newly rebranded Endsleigh League Division 1 - formerly Division Two.

Sunderland would drop further that evening - into the bottom three - as a Stan Collymore-inspired Forest managed a 3-2 win at Roker. The visitors had fielded a strong team having been relegated the season before, with the likes of Stuart Pearce, Des Lyttle and Steve Stone eventually leading them to an instant return back into the new Premier League.

The number of folks who paid their money and took to the stands at Roker Park on that Saturday afternoon was pretty much bang on the average for that season. The highest attendance in 1993-4 would be a 19,502 crowd with the lowest saved for a Wednesday night visit from Luton Town watched by 13,760.

Roker Park

With the attendance on Tuesday night at Sunderland being given as 26,000, crowds today are still a healthy number above those who turned out in the 90s. But anyone who was at the Stadium of Light earlier this week knows the true figure was some way below the official number returned.

Perhaps 20,000 hardy souls braved this week’s game. At this rate though -with dire football being played out - crowds will continue to dwindle and a return to 1990s-level attendances is entirely possible.

In some ways, it’s already as if the Peter Reid era and the Premier League years never happened. The only difference is the venue at which Wearsiders watch their football -with Roker Park an increasingly distant memory.

Martin Smith and Phil Gray were the goalscorers for Sunderland on that November day in ‘93. ‘Tippy’ Gray would go on to be the leading scorer for the season, hitting 14. At 19-years-old Smith would notch a further 7 times in his breakthrough season at Roker Park.

The Sunderland squad of 1993-94

But it’s the stagnation and the sense of unease currently engulfing Wearside which feels oddly reminiscent of 1993. It does feel like Sunderland are about to embark on a similar period to those wilderness years back in English football’s second-tier.

Sunderland flirted with relegation into the old third division on occasion during that bleak 90s period. The season before the club’s blushes had been saved on a nail-biting final day with relegation averted by a single point thanks to Brentford’s inability to save themselves.

1992 had seen an FA Cup final appearance but Malcolm Crosby’s men would only avoid relegation by five points and the goodwill generated by that Wembley appearance had long since evaporated by the time Butcher had been replaced by Buxton.

The Sunderland boardroom was in a perpetual state of upheaval with chairman and majority shareholder Murray the hate figure. Fast forward to 2017 and at the Stadium of Light patience is finally snapping with present owner Ellis Short.

Demonstrations against the Sunderland board were common-place in the 90s with crowds gathering outside the director’s entrance at Roker. Somehow Ellis Short has so far avoided similar protests but right now supporters are widely discussing how best to vent their angst toward the owner in public.

Protests outside the entrance to Roker Park were not uncommon

And history comes with a warning for Short, his appointed chief executive and the other assorted individuals who make up corporate Sunderland AFC. Because once an individual becomes a hate figure on Wearside, the local populace rarely bury the hatchet and will take grievances to their graves in unforgiving mood - think Thatcher, McMenemy and Cowie.

Not that the Short-sighted American or Bainful (sic) Scot could likely care less. The pair have little emotional stake in Sunderland beyond the investment of one and the six-figure salary of the other. Legacy counts little when there’s a city’s football club to plunder before departure.

There remains a hardcore of the Sunderland support who will never forgive Bob Murray for perceived failings, but the former chairman will forever be thanked by most for building the Stadium of Light and ushering in the Reid and Premier League years. Many now raise an eyebrow when comparing Murray to Short and consider that the angst of the 90s may have been misplaced considering what we now face.

They say that at least Bob Murray always had the best interests of the club and the area at heart and he sold up for a pittance - whilst by comparison most concede that Ellis Short now appears intent on stripping what he can from Sunderland’s soul to rake himself a few quid to take back to Missouri.

Is it not time to stand up?