5. 1984 - The Tomorrow Team & Alan Durban
David Snowdon’s excellent book “Give Us Tomorrow Now” chronicles Alan Durban’s time as Sunderland manager. Durban arrived at a time when we had a bloated squad and a board intent on cost cutting.
Over a couple of years Durban trimmed the fat off the squad, reduced the wage bill and concentrated on a mixture of youth and quality experienced players.
It was a slog and was never pretty to watch but Durban had a plan, a plan which was to develop the talented young players who formed the backbone of a team which was approaching top flight mid-table security - something that hadn’t been achieved for 20 years.
Durban had his battles with the board over signings, the kind which would have pushed the club on. He tried and failed to get England’s Mark Chamberlain and Craig Johnston of Liverpool, two players with flair and pace who would have made a difference.
We couldn’t afford David Bardsley of Blackpool, who won the FA Cup with Watford a year later, nor would the funds be released for John Aldridge, never mind capturing a young Michael Laudrup.
Durban got us close and would surely have succeeded if Tom Cowie had backed him instead of his successor Len Ashurst. Durban’s team was safe and secure and it was improving – yet after his dismissal we were relegated 12 months later with a whimper when we should have been looking at the top ten.
4. 2002 - The end of the Peter Reid era
Peter Reid gave us some great times, and will always be fondly remembered, but ultimately the last couple of years were a failure - an expensive failure that set the club back years and a huge missed opportunity.
In 2001 and 2002 Reid’s team of warriors began to break up. Niall Quinn was at the end of his career, Kevin Phillips had lost his spark, Don Hutchison was agitating to leave, and the likes of Summerbee, Butler, Rae and Makin were gone. It was time for Reid to kick the team on, to make the breakthrough signings to take us to that fabled “next level”.
Where would we go for these signings? What would we do?
Reid, prior to this point, had a great record in the transfer market mixed in with some spectacular cock ups. He traditionally shopped in the domestic market and uncovered some great players.
However when he looked to step up the quality and change the team he went abroad for players with international and European experience to try and get us from seventh place and to European qualification.
Money was spent on the likes of Bjorklund, Flo, Laslandes and Reyna, all players who had a different work ethic and culture from what had gone before. Each had pedigree but all failed.
The club gleefully publicised that we they were signing international-standard players. We would progress to that next level, wouldn’t we?
No - we got relegated after just four years in the Premier League and should have done better, much better – a bitter feeling and a ridiculously good opportunity missed.
3. 1973 and all of that
1973 and a famous and unexpected FA Cup win was achieved by a team full of youthful talent and promise - the prospect of European football was surely an opportunity for Sunderland to kick on and get back to the top league after three seasons in the second tier.
A few good signings should have been secured to build on what was there and to help the team progress. Instead, apparently constrained by the maximum wage restrictions we invested in Rod Belfitt and Dennis Longhorn – we lost Dennis Tueart and Micky Horswill early in 1974 and Dave Watson a year later. What a wasted opportunity.
The 1973 team were expected to get promoted in 1974 and expected to do so again in 1975, but both times they fell short. Slowly the cup winning team broke up and much of the momentum we’d created with that dream cup win was lost as it took three seasons to achieve promotion.
Another opportunity squandered.
2. 1985 - Lawrie Mac rocks up in his Mercedes-Benz
In the summer of 1985 Sunderland had just lost a Wembley final and had been relegated from the first division. There was conflict in the boardroom as they had penny pinched through the Durban years. Tom Cowie’s answer to this was to appoint Lawrie McMenemy and to make him the highest paid manager in the country - what an opportunity we had to progress.
When Big Lawrie rocked up at Roker Park in his Mercedes and yellow shirt it was a big deal - he was the most sought after manager in the country, and supporters felt confident that we’d be promoted back to the big time at the first attempt.
We spent big on international footballers such as Alan Kennedy, Frank Gray, George Burley and Eric Gates - big name players at the time. We had retained Barry Venison, Nick Pickering and Mark Proctor, who were all top league quality players. We couldn’t fail, could we?
Well, we did fail and we did so spectacularly. Two seasons later we hadn’t been promoted, and after spending huge sums for the time on wages and transfer fees McMenemy led us to the third division for the first time in our history - a missed opportunity that wrecked the club, almost for good.
1. 2008 - At last, a billionaire owner!
The global financial crisis of 2008 lead to the Drumaville Consortium running for the hills. To great excitement on Wearside, Niall Quinn identified an American billionaire to take over - a man who made his fortune from hedge funds - who seemed to be the answer to our prayers.
Perhaps we should have guessed that a hedge fund man in 2008 would lead to a financial meltdown in Sunderland ten years later.
Yet back then we saw the money. We loved the big name signings, and we enjoyed seeing our transfer record being smashed time and time again. There were good times - there were derby wins by the half dozen - but there were also managerial changes by the dozen.
Money was spent - money was burned, and to excess - and the club should have had success yet for whatever reason it didn’t. Just as the financial markets collapsed in 2008, the finances of Sunderland AFC collapsed in 2018 to the edge of oblivion.
What an opportunity - what a waste.