The 1991-92 was a season of contrast. Poor league form, which could well have resulted in a second-successive relegation, was offset by our fortunes in the FA Cup, and our run to the final at Wembley, for the first time since that momentous day in 1973, which had resulted in Malcolm Crosby being given the manager’s job on a permanent basis. And while we were beaten (but by no means disgraced) by Liverpool in the final, there seemed to be reasonable grounds for optimism in the summer of 1992, particularly as we’d bolstered our squad with the signings of Shaun Cunnington (Grimsby), John Colquhoun (Millwall), and ex-England International Terry Butcher.
All the signs then surely pointed to a much more rewarding 1992-93 campaign, when we found ourselves back in the First Division, though this was due entirely to league re-organisation, in particular the formation of the new FA Premier League, which meant that England’s second tier now was known as the First as opposed to the Second Division.
But as it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth, for if we’d thought that our 1991-92 league campaign had been a nightmare of sorts, then this appeared to be merely “the tip of the iceberg”. There were few, if any, high pointsin 1992-93; indeed, following defeat at our Premier League-bound local rivals Newcastle near the end of April, relegation to the Second Division/third tier, now seemed a very real and rather chilling prospect.
However, a welcome 4-1 win against promotion contenders, Portsmouth, in our last home game gave fresh hope that we could stave off the unthinkable. But then defeat in our penultimate away fixture at another side with the Premier League in their sights, play-off hopefuls Tranmere, meant our survival now hinged on the outcome of what promised to be a rather nerve-racking do-or-die encounter with fellow relegation candidates Notts County at Meadow Lane on the final day of the season. Not the first time, or indeed the last, that our fate had “gone to the wire!”
The scenario was that any two from seven clubs would accompany already-doomed Bristol Rovers in the drop. Those were ourselves, Notts County, Birmingham, Brentford, Cambridge, Luton & Southend. And in fact, the latter two actually met in another crucial clash at Roots Hall, while Cambridge faced a difficult task at West Ham, who had their eyes on an immediate return to the top fight. It all then made for a nervy final afternoon - at least as far as the First Division relegation picture was concerned.
Our own task was simple, win and we’d be safe, no matter what happened elsewhere. A draw might suffice depending on results in the other games affecting the relegation issue, though that may have proved to be cutting things fine, so our aim surely had to be three points. But with County also equally in need of the win, the game was sure to be a tense and hard-fought affair.
So on Saturday, May 8, 1993, all roads from Wearside led to Nottingham, and around 7,000 of our fans packed into the rather compact Meadow Lane ground, hoping to inspire their side to safety. Terry Butcher made two changes to the side beaten at Prenton Park the previous Tuesday, with Gary Bennett and Mick Harford replacing Martin Gray and Peter Davenport respectively, the latter two dropping to the subs bench.
However, the tension of the occasion maybe got to our players, for we proceeded to get off to the worst possible start, going a goal down after just four minutes. A throw in on the left from Dean Thomas found David Reeves, who headed for goal, and with Terry Butcher failing to get any real “meat” into his challenge on the County man, Reeves was able to go on and hammer the ball past Tony Norman.
It was very much one-way traffic, even at this early stage of proceedings, as we struggled to get a grip on the game. A free kick from David Smith looked like causing problems, but fortunately Tony Norman was able to back-pedal and collect the ball just under the bar.
Our first real chance arrived on seventeen minutes, when Mick Harford headed on a long ball from Terry Butcher to find Don Goodman at the far post, but the striker had to stretch for the ball, and his effort finished well wide.
But this proved to be merely temporary reprieve, for County were soon back on the offensive, and should really have increased their lead. Gary Bennett failed to cut out what appeared to be a harmless through ball, and this allowed Gary Lund a free run on goal, and it took a fine save from Tony Norman to prevent us falling further in arrears.
However, Norman was badly at fault almost immediately afterwards, for his error led to us going 0-2 down. The keeper failed to cut out a centre from Kevin Wilson, and the ball travelled on for David Smith, who proceeded to lob the ball into the unguarded net, and leave us with more or less a mountain to climb. Indeed, our travelling fans seemed more or less stunned into silence by what they’d witnessed so far, and some of them made their feelings known in no uncertain terms.
The players also appeared shell-shocked by the events, even though their problems had been largely been of their own making, and our subsequent efforts to try and retrieve the game did tend to smack of desperation. A case in point being when Don Goodman seemed to raise our hopes with a surging run, but our leading scorer then lost his balance just at the crucial moment, and his shot ended up well wide of the target.
It really was getting towards the stage of total embarrassment, with County threatening to tear us to shreds more or less at will. And things went from bad to worse when the home side grabbed a third goal in the thirty-eighth minute, when a left-wing centre from Dean Thomas was met by Mark Draper, whose stunning volley was in the back of the net before Tony Norman could even move. Mission impossible so it seemed.
We then missed a great chance to pull a goal back when Gordon Armstrong was presented with an open goal from just eight yards out, but somehow inexplicably, he stabbed the ball wide. Then a minute before the break, Mick Harford knocked down a centre from Kevin Ball into the path of Gary Owers, whose low drive forced a diving save from Steve Cherry. But the fact that this had been the County keeper’s first save of the half said an awful lot about our overall performance, which had been woeful to say the least.
0-3 then at the break, it had been an absolute “horror show” of a first-half as far as we were concerned. However, the scores in other games affecting the relegation issue were so far going our way, but still, it would be asking too much to rely on the failings of others, and it was obvious that we had to somehow get our act together in the second period, if we were to have any chance of securing our First Division status. But the first real chance of the second-half fell to County, and Tony Norman needed two attempts to save David Smith’s effort.
Don Goodman then missed a great chance to pull a goal back, when he shook off a challenge from Michael Johnson, and proceeded to try and round Steve Cherry. However, Goodman then seemed to hesitate as he did so, which allowed the keeper the chance to recover and grab the ball.
So at last there were one or two encouraging signs, albeit somewhat late in the day. Furthermore, the fans’ vague sense of optimism was enhanced by the news that Brentford had fallen further in arrears at Bristol City, and that Cambridge were now losing at West Ham. Suddenly there appeared fresh hope on the horizon, and further pressure on the home goal finally brought reward in the sixty-eighth minute, when following a scramble in the County goalmouth, Kevin Ball beat Steve Cherry to reduce the arrears.
Boosted by this welcome (if overdue) goal, we continued to call the tune, and Steve Cherry was forced to save from both Terry Butcher and Peter Davenport, who was on as a substitute for Gary Owers, while in a rather rare County attack, Tony Norman had no problems in dealing with a rather weak effort from David Reeves.
But in spite of a rather rousing finale, we couldn’t retrieve the game, which ended 3-1 in County’s favour, the damage done in the first period had ultimately proved to be beyond redemption, and as a result our destiny was now entirely in the hands of other sides. We thus had an anxious few minutes wait following the full-time whistle to learn our fate, as the other results effecting the relegation issue gradually filtered through.
Fortunately, we all ended up breathing a collective sigh of relief, for while both Birmingham and Southend had also triumphed to thus save themselves, Brentford’s 1-4 defeat at Bristol City and Cambridge’s 0-2 reverse at West Ham proved decisive, for these results meant that both The Bees and The U’s accompanied Bristol Rovers in the drop to The Second Division. As for us, we’d survived by the skin of our teeth, by a margin of one point to be more precise. It had indeed been a close call, too close for comfort in fact.
Unfortunately however, it later appeared that the lessons of the best-forgotten 1992-93 campaign were not heeded, for the first few months of 1993-94 were not an awful lot better, and it came as no surprise when Terry Butcher was relieved of his managerial duties in late November, with relegation to the third tier again appearing a real prospect.
Things then improved under his successor Mick Buxton, but then went pear-shaped again in Buxton’s first full season in charge in 1994-95, and he too was shown the door in March 1995, with the drop from the First Division once again looming large. Enter then Peter Reid, who not only guided us to safety, but then set us back on the path to better times, something we could only surely have dreamt of, on that rather tense afternoon in Nottingham in May 1993.