Sunderland’s 1993-94 campaign can perhaps best be described as more or less the proverbial “season of two halves”. Our form during the first five months of the season, save for one or two bright spots, was generally poor, and this perhaps not too surprisingly led to the dismissal of manager Terry Butcher in late November following a dreadful run of six straight league defeats.
However, the arrival of Mick Buxton resulted in quite a dramatic upturn in fortunes, so much so that there was even talk of us reaching the play-offs as the season reached it’s business end. Unfortunately, three successive home defeats during April all but ended any hopes of us competing in what some term the lottery, though we still sought to end the season on a high, even though our final three games of 1993-94 were against three of the top sides in the First Division, namely Tranmere, Wolves and Nottingham Forest.
Forest were just about assured of runners-up spot behind Champions Crystal Palace, Wolves were seeking to make the play-offs, while Tranmere already held a play-off spot, but needed a win in their final away fixture at Roker to make mathematically certain that their own season would be extended.
So the scene was set then for an interesting end-of-season encounter as we sought to end our home 1993-94 league programme on a high, and manager Mick Buxton made a couple of rather surprise changes to his side, bringing in Tony Norman for his first league start of the season in place of previously ever-present Alex Chamberlain, while Gary Bennett made way for Brian Atkinson, who went into midfield, with Kevin Ball switching to central defence.
On a fine afternoon in late April we began brightly, playing towards the Fulwell End, and quite incredibly went 2-0 up inside the first three minutes. This early drama all started after just sixty-seconds, when we gained a free-kick just outside the Rovers area, when Martin Smith had been fouled by Ian Nolan. Craig Russell’s kick eluded a few players on both sides, all except Phil Gray, who forced the ball home from close range.
The cheers of the home support had barely died down when just two minutes later we made it 2-0, with Craig Russell turning goal-getter. A long ball opened up the visitors defence and ‘keeper Eric Nixon appeared to misjudge the situation completely, Craig Russell then challenged Nixon and when the ball broke loose the young striker was left with the easy task of slotting the ball into an empty net.
What a start!
However, our joy was tempered shortly afterwards when Martin Smith was forced to leave the field as a result of the earlier challenge and replaced by Lee Howey.
The visitors then responded positively to their early setback and ex-Mag Liam O’Brien rattled our crossbar with a fierce twenty-five yard drive, then Tony Norman was called into action twice in quick succession, when he dealt with centres from Ged Brannan and the diminutive Pat Nevin. Play then tended to swing from end to end, but with neither side able to find any real penetration.
That was until the twenty-second minute, when we were celebrating a third goal, a superb effort from Phil Gray. The Northern Ireland International latched onto a great through-ball from Gordon Armstrong, cleverly beat John McGreal and beat Nixon with a powerful low drive.
3-0, quite incredible!
Graham Branch then proved to be a handful at a couple of set-pieces as Tranmere sought to retrieve the deficit, but it was we who carried the most threat up front, a fact perhaps emphasised when Craig Russell fired a fierce drive just over.
Undeterred, we kept up the pressure, and came close twice to making it 4-0. Firstly, Derek Ferguson and Phil Gray combined well to set up the chance for Craig Russell, whose low drive travelled narrowly wide of the upright. Then just before the break, Michael Gray’s persistence brought in Brian Atkinson, who laid the ball off to Craig Russell, who in turn fond Phil Gray, whose effort flashed across the face of goal when his hat-trick beckoned.
3-0 then at the break, it had been a quite remarkable first forty-minutes, and most of us no doubt wondered what the second period would have in store.
Would we add to our goal tally?
As it turned out, unfortunately not, for Tranmere, who’d no doubt been shell-shocked by the events of the first period, would turn out to be an entirely different proposition in the second-half, a point emphasised when they pulled a goal back just three minutes after the restart. A deep centre from Pat Nevin was met by John Aldridge, who headed the ball on for Ian Muir to drill a powerful shot across Tony Norman into the corner of the net.
We then almost immediately restored our three-goal advantage when another great effort from Phil Gray brought a superb save from Nixon, and while the ‘keeper was unable to hold the striker’s shot, he reacted bravely to save at the feet of Brian Atkinson who’d followed up on the loose ball.
However, in the fifty-fourth minute, Tranmere were right back in the game when they stunned the home crowd by pulling another goal back. And again Pat Nevin was the creator when he got free on the left and centred to find John Aldridge, and the ex-Liverpool man easily beat Tony Norman from close range. Game on!
So after having at one stage been in complete control, we’d now seemed to have gone off the boil as The Whites, now sensing that they might be able to take some reward from the game, seemed to up their game.
As such, Tony Norman needed two attempts to save a long-range drive from Ian Nolan, then just short of the hour mark the visitors should have equalised when a delightful chip from Ged Brannan picked out Ian Muir, whose powerful header forced a fine save from Tony Norman, though the ‘keeper in all truth should have been fishing the ball out of his net.
The visitors maintained the pressure and we had another escape when a fine effort from Ged Brannan dipped just too late, then a teasing cross from the same player just eluded John Aldridge, who seemed a certain scorer. We were by no means of out it though, and Eric Nixon had to produce a great save to finger-tip a rasping drive from Craig Russell over the bar, as we sought to regain control of the game.
However, it was Tranmere, who’d appeared more or less dead and buried by half-time, who continued to have the better of the second-half exchanges. Graham Branch missed a great chance to make it 3-3 when he mis-kicked after being set up by Ian Muir, then it took the combined efforts of Gordon Armstrong and Tony Norman to foil both Pat Nevin and John Aldridge.
When play switched to the other end, Eric Nixon was once again the hero for Tranmere, when he pulled off a great save to deny Phil Gray his hat-trick, following a free-kick from Derek Ferguson.
We then had another let-off when Kevin Ball cleared an Ian Muir effort off the goal line, and from the resulting corner, John Aldridge was well off-target with a shot on the turn.
We managed to survive Tranmere’s second-half onslaught, but it had certainly been an entertaining game for the crowd of just over 15,000, while the 3-2 win avenged the 1-4 defeat we’d suffered at Prenton Park the previous November.
We then followed up the Tranmere win with draws in our final two games at Forest and Wolves, which enabled us to finish twelfth. Not bad, considering the early-season turmoil which had afflicted the club.
So most of us were no doubt hopeful of better things to come in season 1994-95, unfortunately however, it was not to be, for our form, particularly at Roker Park, was quite abysmal and perhaps not too surprisingly led to the departure of Mick Buxton in March, with relegation to the third tier looking a distinct possibility.
Enter then a certain Peter Reid, and the rest as they say is history, as he instigated one of the brightest periods in our modern-day history. Oh, for those days again!