After a narrow escape from relegation to the third tier at the end of season 1992-93, the 1993-94 campaign had seen more upheaval at the club.
A generally poor run of form during the first four months of the season saw us facing yet another survival battle - and it was perhaps no surprise that manager, Terry Butcher, was shown the door shortly before Christmas, after his short reign on Wearside had been less than spectacular to say the least.
Matters improved under his successor, Mick Buxton, and a twelfth-place finish in 1993-94, offered some encouragement of better things to come. Indeed, after a fairly solid if unspectacular start to the 1994-95 campaign, we stood in eighth spot at the end of October, looking good - it seemed - for a place in the play-offs at the very least.
However, things then went badly wrong: a terrible run of form followed, which saw us record just two wins from the next nineteen games - this ‘nightmare’ streak included an awful home record of a feeble two wins from seventeen league games at Roker Park, certainly relegation form. Thus, as February neared its conclusion, we found ourselves in the bottom four and facing yet another survival battle. The picture looked bleak.
Back-to-back wins at Watford and Southend provided equal measures of hope and relief, but the subsequent month of March proved to be a truly horrendous time, for while we recorded only our third home win of the season: 1-0 against Stoke (remember the ‘red card’ protest at this game!?) Our other six league games during the month all ended in defeat.
This meant as the crucial month of April began, relegation to the third tier was looking a very real, very ominous possibility. Perhaps not too surprisingly, this resulted in Bob Murray reaching for the panic button and yet another managerial change was made, Mick Buxton making way for Peter Reid, whose pedigree suggested he might be the ideal candidate to not only help us stave off the threat of the dreaded drop, but also point the way to better times.
But Reidy’s first game in charge couldn’t have been much harder, a home fixture against promotion-seeking Sheffield United. Could we then correct our awful home form, just when it mattered most? The answer was a resounding yes!
The effect of the new manager appeared to be quite dramatic, as a late Craig Russell goal clinched three vital points from The Blades. Our next game, also versus a side with top-flight ambitions in Derby, was also won 1-0, thanks to a goal from the inspirational Kevin Ball, before we had to settle for a point from a 1-1 home draw with Luton nevertheless contributing to moving us up one place and more importantly five points clear of the dreaded drop zone.
Things were looking promising so far then under Reid’s tenure. However, a 0-1 defeat in the next game, against a Bolton side with their own Premiership ambitions, saw us drop back down to fifth-bottom spot. Which put a fair bit of pressure on us going into our next fixture: a crucial relegation six-pointer with Swindon at Roker.
Swindon, who were managed by Steve McMahon (a former playing colleague of Peter Reid at Manchester City) lay one place below us and five points worse off prior to kick-off - though the Robins did have a game in hand, while they had of course beaten us 1-0 in a re-arranged fixture at The County ground the previous month.
So with so much at stake, the game was sure to be a keenly-contested affair; the rather awful weather conditions were also likely to have some effect on proceedings. Sunderland showed just one change to the ensemble beaten at Burnden Park five days earlier, when Martin Smith came in for the suspended Kevin Ball, while one notable inclusion in the Swindon side was Andy Todd, son of former Roker favourite Colin Todd.
So on a wet and windy afternoon - in front of a crowd of just under 17,000 - we kicked off attacking the Roker End.
The first chance of note came when Brett Angell had a charged shot blocked just outside the Swindon area, though the ball broke kindly for Michael Gray, whose effort brought a fine save from keeper Fraser Digby. Then shortly afterwards, we came close to breaking the deadlock. Martin and Michael Gray combined well to set up a chance for Brian Atkinson, whose effort was charged down, but the loose ball fell nicely to Brett Angell, whose powerful effort struck the upright, before being cleared to safety.
The Swindon back line then had quite a big let-off, for following a sustained attack down the left, Adrian Viveash tried to relieve the danger, but his attempted clearance travelled across his own area, falling rather conveniently to Michael Gray, who was in a great position to try and take advantage. But his first-time effort was superbly turned over the top by Fraser Digby.
However, undeterred, we kept up the pressure and were rewarded just before half-time, forcing a vital breakthrough. A free-kick on the left was touched on by Martin Smith into the danger area and - when the Swindon defence failed to clear their lines once again - the ball came back to Smith, who found the net with a well-hit left-footed effort.
Just the tonic we needed then, going in at the break. Upon the game’s resumption, we began brightly, nearly capitalising on the momentum still apparent to grab a second! As a Swindon attack broke down, Atkinson found Angell with a neat ball, Angell in turn picked out Phil Gray, but his effort was beaten away by Fraser Digby before the Swindon defence haphazardly scrambled the ball away.
We were now very much on top and after Phil & Michael Gray had combined well on the right, the latter sent over a dangerous, teasing cross which Digby could only punch clear, before the ball was cleared to safety.
The visitors then broke dangerously, but Kevin Horlock’s long, hopeful ball forward went straight to Tony Norman. Then, in another rather rare Swindon offensive, Horlock had a shot deflected wide and, from the resulting corner, Norman produced a great save to beat away a fierce strike from Swindon substitute Dean Hooper, to thus preserve our delicate advantage.
To some relief, normal service was soon resumed: some fine work from Michael Gray set up the chance for Phil Gray to secure a vital win. However, he failed to get any real power behind his shot, possibly not helped by the wet and soggy conditions - ultimately his effort was easily blocked before the ball was cleared to safety.
Not that it mattered, for we held out for a 1-0 win - well-deserved I felt. It was one which had not only avenged our earlier defeat at Swindon’s hands, but - far more importantly - given us three vital safety points.
In spite of our timely and welcome success, however, we remained in twentieth spot. While we were now nine points ahead of Swindon, we still weren’t mathematically safe. Due to the fact that The Robins had that aforementioned game in hand, it was still possible for them to overhaul us...
But those looking over their shoulder with that persistent relegation anxiety were relieved to find the issue was finally settled the following week, for our 1-1 draw at already-doomed Burnley, coupled with Swindon’s 0-2 home reverse against Portsmouth, meant we secured safety with one game to spare, while Swindon took the drop along with their local rivals Bristol City, as well as Burnley and Notts County.
With a 2-2 draw with WBA in the final game of the 1994-95 season at Roker, we ended in twentieth spot, six points clear of the drop zone. It had been another slightly nerve-wracking finale, but new boss Peter Reid had completed the first part of his job: securing our Division One status.
We could now start planning for what we all hoped would be a brighter future and as events turned out, we were soon to embark on times which previously only the most optimistic of us could surely have forecast!