On this day 27 years ago, Sunderland stumbled into an inevitable crisis as Friday 26 November 1993 brought a day of drama at Roker Park, that ended with the sacking of a manager and the resignation of a chairman.
Terry Butcher initially came to Sunderland as a player in the summer of 1992, when Malcolm Crosby brought him to the club on the recommendation of his assistant manager Bobby Ferguson, who had worked with the defender at Ipswich.
The ex-England international had been looking for a club after being sacked as player-manager of First Division Coventry City the previous January, and was seen as an experienced head to help Sunderland’s backline.
Despite getting Sunderland to the FA Cup final the previous year, that wasn’t enough to save Malcolm Crosby from the sack in January 1992, and having been a manager of a club prior to joining Sunderland, Terry Butcher was in pole position to take on the role.
Results didn’t improve under the stewardship of the ex-Ipswich Town defender as Sunderland finished four places below where they were when Crosby was sacked, only surviving on the last day of the season due to other results going their way.
Sunderland went to Notts County on the final day of the season and knew a victory would keep them up as they sat one place and one point above the relegation zone. Terry Butcher’s side went down to a disastrous 3-1 defeat, which meant the attention turned to the results of Brentford and Cambridge United. In a rare stroke of luck, both sides were also defeated, which meant Sunderland stayed up, but Butcher knew he had a job on his hands and had to rebuild.
In May, Bobby Ferguson resigned – he had had enough, sickened by the poor quality of players he had to work with. It was enough for me too, both the team and I had been dreadful, and I also decided it was time to call it a day. But only as a player - for that summer, with my manager’s hat on, I saw an opportunity to re-group and add players.
I was given some money, though, and I signed Derek Ferguson from Hearts, Northern Ireland striker Phil Gray from Luton, Ian Rodgerson from Birmingham for the right side of midfield, and Oxford’s Andy Melville to go into the central defensive position.
Bob Murray backed the new manager to the tune of almost £2 million, which was unprecedented at Roker Park, and was the most any manager had been given to spend in the club’s history.
The optimism was short-lived as Butcher’s new signings were involved in a car accident returning home from a pre-season friendly victory over Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park. A 5-0 opening day defeat at Derby County soon followed.
This set the tone for the season ahead, and other than impressive performances over two legs against Leeds United in the League Cup, the form in Endsleigh League Division One was woeful.
When Sunderland went down 2-0 at Southend United on the 20th November, it was the sixth successive defeat in all competitions – and Butcher’s side sat in 20th position, only one point above the relegation zone. Rumours were spreading throughout the week regarding the manager’s future, which culminated in a farcical day at Roker Park, only 24 hours before Sunderland were due to face Frank Clark’s Nottingham Forest in front of an expectant home crowd.
The day began with the manager turning up to take training as the waiting press had gathered outside the ground, seemingly already armed with the knowledge that the club’s directors were locked in the boardroom planning the change of manager.
If I’ve been dismissed, then I must have missed it.
Almost an hour later, an embarrassed Butcher emerged to inform the waiting press what they already knew – that he and his assistant Ian Atkins were no longer employed at the club.
Incredibly, this announcement came directly from Butcher himself – there was still no sign of any director of the club to confirm the news.
Later, it emerged that Bob Murray had resigned as chairman of the football club but would stay on the board of directors, ending his tenure by explaining the decision to sack Terry Butcher.
We have taken three points out of fifty-four away from home and that is relegation form. It could not be allowed to continue. This club is in danger of creating an unwanted record of successive defeats. We have now lost three managers in 21 months, but the way I like to see it as that three have gone in seven years.
Reserve team coach Mick Buxton, who had previously had successful spells as manager of Scunthorpe United and Huddersfield Town, stepped up to take over first-team duties until at least the end of the season, an appointment that resulted in an almost immediate improvement.
Sunderland under Buxton went on to finish 12th at the end of the 1993-94 season after the new manager building a tight defence which made the side difficult to beat.
But, on this day 27 years ago, it was just another day – and another crisis to navigate – at Roker Park.