In the summer of 1993, things were looking up. Although in hindsight I really don’t know why.
We’d narrowly avoided relegation in the most unlikely of circumstances – anyone who was at Meadow Lane on that horrendous day will remember it vividly.
A pathetic performance on the field left us relying on results elsewhere and, of course, this was in the days of a transistor radio tuned into BBC Radio 2 being the premium – i.e only – way of getting any information whatsoever in the stands.
The final whistle at Meadow Lane brought premature celebrations, before we realised – thanks to an old boy with said transistor radio who was sat in the row behind me – that we weren’t out of the woods just yet. West Ham v Cambridge had overrun, and there was still a chance we could go down.
Shouts of ‘we’re not safe yet, man!’, usually followed by ‘you daft bastards’ reverberated around the stands as the jubilation turned into palpable tension - relieved after what seemed like half an hour by the final whistle at Upton Park.
Cambridge and Brentford had finished on 49 points and were down. Sunderland, on 50, survived.
Cross bars promptly snapped, Butcher chaired off in celebration; in truth it wasn’t anything other than relief.
Fast forward a month or two, and it seemed like that experience had been a watershed moment. In hindsight it was a typical Sunderland false dawn but, in the words of the old fanzine, and now occasional Roker Report contributor, It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand.
And this summer was full of hope – thanks largely to Captain Bob opening his wallet for what seemed like the first time ever. And partly down to Terry Butcher’s retirement from playing to concentrate on the management side of things.
Off-field, Butcher had brought in ex-Sunderland skipper Ian Atkins in as his number two. On the field, he’d added a raft of what seemed like – on paper at least – top quality signings.
Phil Gray, who’d earned a reputation as one of the best strikers outside the top flight, signed from Luton; Derek Ferguson, highly regarded north of the border, arrived from Hearts. Welsh international Andy Melville joined from Oxford, while Alec Chamberlain made the same journey as teammate Gray.
The fifth of Butcher’s signings was Ian Rodgerson, a 27-year-old winger from Birmingham. Rodgerson, had set up a goal for Birmingham against Sunderland, and had evidently impressed Butcher, who’d played centre half that day.
After beating off interest from Crystal Palace, the deal had gone to tribunal – as happened for out of contract players in those days – with Birmingham wanting £500,000 and Sunderland offering £70,000. The tribunal arrived at a fee of £140,000, and Butcher said:
I’m very pleased. We think we have got a good player for £140,000. It’s more than we put down in our valuation, but we are just happy it is all over. Ian can get on with training with us. He’s a smashing chap, and has looked very impressive on the training ground.
Of course, what happened subsequently has gone down in Sunderland folklore. And again, what a typical Sunderland thing to happen: After a pre-season victory over Middlesbrough, all five new signings were travelling in the same car, and were involved in a serious collision.
Melville, Chamberlain and Ferguson – who’d particularly impressed in pre-season – escaped relatively unscathed. Gray missed the start of the season thanks to glass embedded in his head, while Rodgerson was ruled out for longer, with a dislocated shoulder.
Fast forward four months, and Butcher and the team were struggling. Sitting in 16th position after 14 games – five wins, two draws and seven defeats – we welcomed Portsmouth to Roker Park – and Rodgerson, finally, made his bow – starting on the right wing.
Pressure was building on the manager and, in what was billed as a must win game, we did a typical Sunderland thing... conceding two, totally avoidable goals in the first half.
A ‘dreadful blunder’ by a young Michael Gray ‘having his least accomplished game for the club’ gifted a goal to Paul Walsh who turned Kevin Ball far too easily.
The second goal came just before half time, with Melville being beaten by Walsh, who played the ball in for Doling to hit a shot at goal, which deflected past Chamberlain.
The atmosphere among the 17,146 crowd turned ugly – Butcher the focus of the anger. Booed off at half time, a fortunate goal from Martin Smith just after the break offered a way back, but it was one we didn’t take.
In the context of the game Rodgerson had impressed on debut – the match report wondering if he’d remained fit whether Butcher would have been under the pressure he was – but in the end it was a moot point.
Butcher, who’d optimistically asked the board for more transfer funds in the week leading up to the game – a request, after giving the manager almost £5m to spend in the summer, was understandably given short shrift – lasted only two more games. A heavy away defeat to Tranmere followed by a reverse to the touchline-sprinting Barry Fry’s Southend – Brett Angell getting his customary goal against Sunderland – saw off the ex-England captain.
As for Rodgerson, that game against Portsmouth was one of only five starts he made for the club. He left for Cardiff in 1995, joining Hereford in 1997, and played over 200 games after leaving Roker.
As for that early season optimism, it was long gone. At least under Butcher’s successor – Flat Cap Mick – we avoided a last game nail biter, finishing the season in a comfortable, yet unexciting, 12th position.
Yet another footnote in the illustrious history of Sunderland AFC.