Late November 1993. In those far-off, pre-internet days, I was a student down south and it was hard to keep in touch with what was going on at Sunderland.
Every week my mam sent the Football Echo down in the post and I also subscribed to ALS but other than that, nothing. One day, checking my pigeon hole for post, I found a phone message from my dad: “Butcher’s gone”. I celebrated.
Sunderland were rubbish. Relegation from the top flight in 1991 had led into the FA Cup season, 1991-92, when we had, in fact, been fortunate not to be relegated.
And we nearly went down again in 1993. Crowds were down. There was discontent in the boardroom: Bob Murray wanted out but nobody was interested in buying his stake in the club. There was a woeful lack of investment on and off the pitch. Roker Park was crumbling, there seemed little prospect of getting the mooted new ground by the Nissan factory, and the training ground was a muddy field by a farm. There were continual rumours of trouble behind the scenes, most notoriously involving Derek Ferguson whose pre-season car crash in Roker had injured that summer’s new signings.
We were a shambles. A regular at away games, it was during this period that I went a year without seeing us win away before we finally managed a scrappy 1-0 at Portsmouth.
The season started with us losing 5-0 at Derby, a dreadful game in which Marco Gabbiadini starred for the home team. We lost 4-1 at Boro and then in October went on a six match losing streak which brought an end to Terry Butcher’s managerial career at Roker, on 26 November. I saw two of those defeats, capitulations at Stoke and Bristol City where we never threatened. Butcher was way out of his depth, completely incapable of getting any coherence or form out of his squad.
Sunderland were crying out for a new start. A manager with a vision; a chairman with money; anything to cling to, that we might one day make it into the Premier League.
Instead, Mick Buxton was appointed manager. A decent bloke with a steady record in the lower leagues, his speciality was the grinding draw. God, we were dull.
And by autumn 1994 we were clearly headed to the third division.
What changed things was the appointment of Peter Reid towards the end of the 1994-95 season, when relegation looked almost certain. Reid was a name to conjure with. A tenacious midfielder who had managed at the top level and had a bit of swagger and charisma about him. Fans immediately swung behind him and the atmosphere at games improved one million per cent.
The players were rejuvenated and we achieved safety. Unbelievably, Reid took the same squad to top of the table in 1995-96 and a new era was born.
It’s worth thinking about the parallels between the mid-1990s and our current predicament. All it took in 1995 was a strong managerial appointment and the club turned around.
Football is a simple game. Most of the problems at football clubs go away if the team starts winning. There are clearly serious questions about the ownership of the club at the moment, but they will fade into the background if things are sorted on the pitch, just as they did in 1995. Bob Murray didn’t go anywhere or suddenly become popular – the identity of the directors and Murray’s plans to sell simply became irrelevant.
If things can be got right on the pitch, the gloom will quickly lift.
Parkinson is no Peter Reid. So far, he’s not even a Mick Buxton. It would take a Christmas miracle for him to keep his job. Stewart Donald needs to think very careful about the next managerial appointment and make sure the club has someone with the right personality – like Reid or Keane – to handle the pressure at Sunderland and relight the fire.