Sunderland Managers of the 1990s begins where Sunderland Managers of the 1980s ended – with the sacking of Denis Smith after a 3-0 reverse at Oxford on 28 December 1991.
To begin what was a largely stagnating period for the club in the first part of the 90s, Malcolm Crosby found himself at the helm before being succeeded by Terry Butcher.
Malcolm Crosby (1992-93)
Towards the end of 1991, Malcolm Crosby had been promoted to assistant manager at Sunderland as Denis Smith looked to freshen things up behind the scenes.
Sunderland had found themselves back in the second tier following relegation from the First Division at the end of the 90-91 season, but the expected promotion push hadn’t gone to plan.
Also as part of a shakeup to the team, the legendary Marco Gabbiadini had been sold to generate funds for the purchase of strikers Don Goodman and John Byrne, as well as left-back Anton Rogan.
However, the purchase of Goodman was one of the last acts of Smith’s reign and Byrne, along with Gordon Armstrong was sent off within six minutes of Goodman’s debut.
Dennis Smith’s plan for a striking double act of Goodman and Byrne to fire Sunderland up the league only had a couple of games together before Bob Murray pulled the plug on his manager's reign after a 3-0 defeat at Oxford.
When Malcolm Crosby took the Roker Park hot seat for the New Year’s Day fixture at home to Barnsley it was only ever intended to be as a caretaker.
Bob Murray dreamed of a big name manager, and rumours of an approach to ex England captain Bryan Robson as a player-manager did the rounds; Robson taking that role at neighbours Middlesbrough a season or two later. Notts County’s Neil Warnock and Crystal Palace’s Steve Coppell were also heavily linked.
Crosby oversaw an upturn in form, however, which bought the board some breathing space.
With Goodman and Byrne on fire up front, Crosby won his first four games in charge and five out of his first six, including two FA Cup ties – at home to Port Vale and away to Oxford.
This set up the first of Sunderland’s giant-killing FA Cup wins of that season, 3-2 away to West Ham after a 1-1 draw at Roker. In the Sixth Round the team drew at Chelsea before an unforgettable 2-1 win at Roker live on TV. Gordon Armstrong won the game, launching himself full-length to net a spectacular last-minute header.
So it was onto the semi-final at Hillsborough against another top-flight team in the form of Norwich. Hillsborough, the scene of Sunderland’s famous semi-final win against Arsenal in 1973, saw another giant-killing as they deservedly won 1-0, Byrne sweeping home from the move of the game to reach Wembley to face Liverpool.
While Sunderland performed in the cup, the league form – after the initial run of wins – had subsided, and Sunderland struggled towards the foot of the table. Despite this, Bob Murray, who never really believed in Crosby as manager, appointed him as permanent manager in the week leading up to the cup final – later admitting he wanted to avoid the stigma of having a caretaker manager leading an FA Cup Final team out at Wembley.
In the final, Sunderland attacked Liverpool and looked the better side for a lot of the time, created chances and..... somehow fluffed the lot. Once Liverpool scored in the second half, the gulf between the two sides was shown and the better team won.
Crosby attempted to strengthen the team in the summer, with one of of his more notable signings the ex England centre back Terry Butcher. However, results were mediocre from the off with the hero of the cup run John Byrne looking much like he didn’t want to be there.
A few games into the season, Byrne, a player Sunderland had chased since the mid-80s and finally got just one year before, left Sunderland for Millwall. After a pools panel defeat at Tranmere, Crosby was sacked with Sunderland in 17th position.
It will be for the cup run of ‘92 that Crosby will always be remembered. It is a testament to his motivational skills that in that run, Sunderland deservedly beat West Ham, Chelsea, Norwich and scared the heck out of Liverpool in the final.
There was no luck involved, the team was fired up for the big games and they won them by being the better team on the day.
Maybe, that showed what he was good at, a great motivator, who would be a good number two or coach, not as a manager trying to shape a long term strategy.
Terry Butcher (1993)
Although he had come as a player, recruited by Malcolm Crosby in the summer of 1992, the Sunderland job was actually Terry Butcher’s second throw at being a manager. His first at Coventry hadn’t gone well and ended in his dismissal by the Sky Blues. Figuring that he still had something to offer as a player, he had come north on a one-year deal.
England fans that think of Terry Butcher think of the player that was the rock of the Ipswich and England defence for a number of years.
The pictures of him in an England shirt, head bandaged, covered in his own blood and grinning to the camera at the end of an important World Cup qualifier will never be forgotten.
It was this kind of spirit that Malcolm Crosby hoped he would bring to the Sunderland dressing room, and presumably what Bob Murray hoped he would bring to the manager’s seat when he asked him to replace his recently departed boss.
He was also completely barking.
Fans of the time will remember when as a player in the warm-up, how he would wave his arms in front of the terraces in an effort to whip the atmosphere up before kick off, and conduct cheers from the crowd at the end of a win... or a draw.
When he became manager, Butcher, according to Lee Howey turned up for the derby against Newcastle with a shaven head bellowing ‘ We’re f*****g commandos! I’ve had this haircut because I’m a commando and you’re all going to be f*****g commandos too. We’re going to parachute in, get the victory, then f*** off out! NO SURRENDER!’
This was met by a stunned silence from the Sunderland players. Quite.
Results from the off were not met by an uplift in fortunes.
From taking over with the club in 17th place in January, Sunderland had to go to Notts County on the final day of the 92-93 season knowing that a draw or a win would make them safe.
Instead, the team found themselves 3-0 down at half-time and eventually lost 3-1 in a performance that still shudders in the memory, with only the bad fortunes of the clubs around them in the league keeping them up.
After only partially backing Malcolm Crosby the year before, Bob Murray miraculously found a couple of million quid under the bed with which to back Butcher in the summer.
A couple of them, such as Phil Gray and Andy Melville turned out to be good buys and served the club well. Others were more forgettable.
What they didn’t bring with them was luck, as four of them infamously were all in the same car that tried to drive the wrong way around a roundabout in pre-season and were subsequently injured.
It wasn’t just the bad luck that was proving the undoing of Butcher.
Several of the senior established players couldn’t get along with him or his assistant Bobby Ferguson.
As a player, he had always inspired those around him, the one that his teammates would want alongside them in the trenches.
Yet as a manager, his man-management skills seemed to be completely lacking. Apparently, his reaction at half time in the all-important Notts County game was to sit with his head in his hands for ten minutes without saying a word.
On the pitch, things started badly in the new season and after a short revival, disintegrated into chaos.
In November, after six successive defeats, and with the club in desperate trouble, Butcher was shown the door.