Following the horrors of season 1992-93, when we’d escaped relegation to England’s third tier by a margin much too close for comfort, most of us must have hoped that things surely couldn’t have got much worse and that the only way was was up in season 1993-94.
During the close season, manager Terry Butcher had been busy in the transfer market in a bid to bolster his squad to hopefully avoid a repetition of the close shave we’d endured in 1992-93.
And the new players to arrive on Wearside were Derek Ferguson (Hearts), Andy Melville (Oxford), Ian Rodgerson (Birmingham) and Phil Gray (Luton), though the latter two would sustain injuries in a pre-season car crash which meant they’d miss our opening games.
In spite of the pre-season signs appearing reasonably promising, season 1993-94 couldn’t have started in a worst possible fashion, with an opening day 0-5 defeat at fancied Derby County for whom ex-Roker hero Marco Gabbiadini was on target with one of his side’s goals.
While we’d seemed to have recovered the following mid-week with a 3-1 home win over Chester City (even though we had to come from behind) in the 1st round of the Coca-Cola Cup, some of us were perhaps a little apprehensive ahead of the first league home of 1993-94 against Charlton. After all we were occupying bottom spot, while The Londoners sat proudly top of the pile having won both of their opening games which included a 2-1 success at another of the pre-season favourites, Portsmouth, in their previous away fixture.
And they were also boosted by the knowledge that they’d triumphed on their three previous visits to Roker, as if to prove themselves as something of a “bogey” side.
So it was perhaps a bit of a tough task facing Terry Butcher’s side, and of the newcomers only Andy Melville featured, though we did have Lee Power in our attack. We could have easily fell behind after just fifteen seconds, when Garry Nelson evaded a challenge from Gary Bennett and released John Robinson, but thankfully the latter’s overhit pass failed to pick out a colleague.
We responded in positive fashion, and when Gordon Armstrong’s deep centre was headed across the face of goal by Gary Owers towards Don Goodman, Charlton’s Phil Chapple managed to clear in the nick of time to prevent what could have been a certain goal.
Our next real chance fell to Michael Gray following a free-kick, but his shot was deflected for a corner which came to nothing. Gray was back again soon afterwards when he was picked out by a cross from Gary Bennett, though his effort was just over.
Bennett then had to be at his defensive best as Charlton once more threatened, before Shaun Cunnington blazed well over after having set up by Don Goodman. We then came under pressure again when Charlton forced three successive corners, though thankfully the visitors were unable to capitalize on these, then Anthony Smith did well to head clear when under pressure from Robinson.
So far neither side had managed to establish any real pattern or rhythm, something perhaps emphasized when Don Goodman fired high and wide after taking a return pass from Michael Gray. Then when Shaun Newton broke clear following some hesitancy on our part, the youngster wasted the opportunity by overhitting his eventual centre. The same player was then denied by John Kay after appearing a certain scorer, then just before the break it looked as we might break the deadlock when Gary Owers burst down the right wing and centred for Don Goodman, whose effort was turned behind by keeper Mike Salmon.
0-0 at half-time then, perhaps a fair reflection of the first period in which clear-cut goalscoring chances had been few and far between. However, we were to provide compensation of sorts in the second-half, though not before we’d withstood some sustained pressure from the visitors.
And it all began when Garry Nelson had a shot charged down by the combination of Gary Bennett and Anthony Smith, and when the rebound fell to Peter Garland his shot was deflected behind for a fruitless corner.
Charlton were soon back on the offensive, and Alec Chamberlain almost gifted The Londoners the lead. The keeper mis-cued a clearance which went straight to Carl Leaburn, whose shot was deflected behind for a corner which fell kindly for Scott Minto, who thankfully shot high and wide. There was another let-off shortly afterwards, when Anthony Smith misjudged a backpass to Chamberlain letting in Newton, whose shot was just wide of the post.
Chamberlain was then lucky not to see red for a foul on Nelson, then Newton overhit a centre as the visitors continued to dominate, whereas we just didn’t appear to be at the races. Gary Owers then raised hopes when he went on a promising run before bringing in Michael Gray, but unfortunately the youngster ran into trouble when trying to take on two Charlton defenders.
The game was crying out for a goal but the breakthrough seemed as far away as ever when Lee Power was just foiled by Salmon, after some great work by Bennett, then Benno himself had a powerful drive charged down following a corner from Gray.
Then in the sixty-fifth minute finally came the breakthrough, courtesy of the sort of inspiration which had been badly needed. Michael Gray was fouled on the left wing, and Gary Owers free-kick into the box was met in majestic style by Don Goodman, who headed powerfully home.
Just what we’d been waiting for, and as it happened, this goal would open the floodgates. However, Charlton responded immediately to this setback, it took a superb save from Alec Chamberlain to preserve our lead, the keeper spectacularly turning a header from Phil Chapple over the bar. Then when played switched to the other end, Don Goodman fired an eighteen-yard effort just over the top, but we weren’t to be denied, and in the seventy-fourth minute we were celebrating a second goal courtesy of a well-worked move. Owers and Cunnington combined well to set up Goodman, who fired in a fierce effort which Mike Salmon could only parry, and Michael Gray was on hand to hammer home the rebound.
There was no stopping us now, and we proceeded to put the issue beyond doubt with two goals in as many minutes. In the eighty-second minute an inch-perfect centre from Michael gray picked out Shaun Cunnington, who beat Mike Salmon with a clever lob, then just two minutes later, Don Goodman set up the chance for Gordon Armstrong to leave Salmon helpless with a powerful drive.
4-0 then. Perhaps the result flattered us overall as our performance had been lack-lustre at times, though no doubt most of the crowd of 17,647 went home happy, while the result had helped wipe out the memory of the corresponding fixture the previous season when two own-goals had gifted Charlton victory.
This was to be the story of the 1993-94, i.e. a good result (or maybe two or three), followed by a disappointment. Indeed, following the Charlton win, we proceeded to reach round two of the Coca-Cola Cup with a 0-0 draw in the return leg at Chester City but were brought back down to earth with a 0-1 defeat v Notts County at Meadow Lane, a venue where we could well have been relegated the previous May.
By November 1993, relegation was again looking a distinct possibility following six successive league defeats, and perhaps not surprisingly manager Terry Butcher was shown the door.
Enter then Mick Buxton, as the Sunderland managerial merry-go-round continued, and to his credit, he did guide us to mid-table respectability. There had even been talk of the possibility of promotion (albeit via the play-offs) during the latter part of the season, though as it happened it would take another couple of seasons (and another managerial change) before that dream was realized.