Alan will be appearing as a guest on the Roker Rapport Podcast in a few weeks when he visits the studio and we’ll be going more in-depth with him on his time as Sunderland manager, but in the meantime here’s a taster of what you can expect both from our conversation and from the book about his storied career, ‘Give Us Tomorrow Now’.
The book’s author, David Snowdon, gives us a rundown of Durban’s turbulent spell at Sunderland in which he struggled for the most part when contending with then owner Tom Cowie, a relationship which ultimately broke down to the point where the Welsh manager was dismissed from his post in March 1984.
In the summer of 1981, Alan Durban could easily have opted for the comfort of remaining as manager of Stoke City. However, Durban was not a man to flinch when faced with a challenge and was excited by the massive potential of Sunderland, and the fervour of its supporters.
It was the level of loyal support that especially fired Durban’s enthusiasm, and he relished the chance to harness the energy. There would be no soft option, an approach underscored by Durban’s response when questioned about diminishing attendances during a difficult transitional period:
It would be easy for us to get relegated and the crowds to come back when we were going for promotion, but I would rather do it the hard way in the First Division.
Doing it the hard way, the right way, exhibited a progressive philosophy, but one that was often not appreciated by a fickle and vocal minority.
Decades before Gus Poyet expressed the need of “a miracle” to avoid relegation from the top flight, Durban’s threadbare squad achieved that very phenomenon.
Couching that dire predicament in slightly less dramatic parlance following a February 1982 home defeat against former club Stoke (whose manager had been able to splash out £400,000 to sign two internationals while Durban laboured in a ‘sell first’ straitjacket), the Roker boss stated:
We had to do something remarkable to get out of trouble – and now we have to do something extraordinary.
In April, a home defeat in the basement ‘six-pointer’ against Middlesbrough led most to regard relegation as inevitable. Sparks flew and egos received a battering during a ‘no holds barred’ dressing-room inquest where players and management let rip in pointing fingers and airing opinions on what was required to remedy the situation.
It was the starting point for a dramatic Roker revival as Durban gave the opportunity to young Colin West to partner Gary Rowell in attack, and the long-awaited goals came. The defence tightened up, and Durban’s galvanised team transformed their mentality.
It had become apparent that Durban had not enjoyed the financial resources he had been led to expect on arrival, but that was an aspect that meant an escape from relegation would represent his finest managerial achievement yet:
I thought I could have gone out and bought in the middle of the season […] so it will give me far more pleasure if we do it this way.
Safety was secured, and there was immense satisfaction:
I have never been so pleased as I was with that last-match win, not for myself but for all the Sunderland supporters who had supported us so loyally. They deserve first division football; they deserve a team they can be proud of. After all they had suffered, over 26,000 turned up for that last match.
It’s for passion and loyalty like that that I came to Roker Park.
Despite being shackled by punitive spending restrictions, two seasons of modest-but-steady improvement followed. Durban upgraded the midfield engine-room with the signings of Paul Bracewell and Mark Proctor, but even this was accompanied by the unpalatable frustration of being forced to sacrifice Ally McCoist in order to fund the acquisitions.
Durban knew he should have been in a position to augment the squad, not relinquish the talented forward he had envisaged playing a leading role for many years.
Other ‘big-name’ clubs looking to restore status (Leeds United and Manchester City) were impressed enough by Durban’s sterling work (in the face of a host of obstacles) to make approaches to steal him away, but Durban was not tempted to leave his work-in-progress and the unsurpassed passion of the Wearside faithful.
He was building a squad of young players full of potential, with a sprinkling of guiding older heads (such as Jimmy Nicholl and Leighton James). The green shoots were visible, with Barry Venison, Nick Pickering and Bracewell winning international recognition.
Durban’s ultimate aim was to have a successful Sunderland team brimming over with a blend of full-international players – the ‘tomorrow team’.
By 1984, an unbridgeable splinter had resulted in the chairman-manager working relationship becoming non-existent.
As March dawned, Durban’s team had struggled through a gruelling month of fixtures against the leading clubs, but the team were still nine points clear of the danger-zone with a game in hand. No cause for panic. Yet, following an agonisingly split boardroom vote, Durban was dismissed. He later noted the aspect he found particularly difficult to accept was the ‘cowardice’ of sacking him prior to two home matches. It appeared obvious that certain executives were blindly determined on their course, and not prepared to risk the manager strengthening his position with a couple of good results.
Over the next three years, as the club slid to Division Three, departed players illustrated what might have been achieved. Venison, Bracewell, and Ian Atkins picked up championship medals. Lee Chapman (still only 24) was another who Sunderland did not have the patience to persevere with as he matured into the finished article, the striker finishing league top-scorer in Leeds’ title-winning season. Pickering and Chris Turner were two more sold in their prime. Gary Rowell (incredibly permitted to leave on a free transfer) recalls Durban as a “good manager who had built up a good team […and] was dismissed before he had time to finish the job”.
The book Give Us Tomorrow Now provides a detailed commentary of events, seeking to relive this 1980s’ period through its pages, and explores how Durban’s long-term vision to build a team brimming over with a quality blend of youth and “know-how” was not allowed the necessary time to mature and flourish.
Sadly, a generation of Sunderland supporters missed out on tasting some glory years.