Glasgow Rangers were five years into a nine-year Scottish championship winning streak when they arrived at Roker Park for our first pre-season game in July 1993. They were a strong team representing a club of great stature, and they were fitting opponents as we celebrated ten years of Gary Bennett’s commitment to Sunderland.
Gary Bennett is one of my favourite players ever. It wasn’t that he always did everything right. But he was always there.
Between 1984-1995 he played over four hundred times, and he was present in all the iconic games of the era – good and bad.
Terry Butcher was the manager at the start of the 1993-1994 season. He had replaced Malcolm Crosby in January 1993 and was himself replaced before the year was out, Mick Buxton coming in for him in November 1993. It was not a successful period for Sunderland.
The last game of the 1992-1993 season was an unpleasant affair as the team capitulated at Notts County, a team, like us, battling to stay in the second tier of English football. They beat us 3-1. They stayed up and so did we; but only because results elsewhere had gone in our favour.
Butcher was given money. He bought players. Four of them were involved in a car crash.
Ferguson, Rodgerson and Cunnington are faded in my memory, a bit like Marty McFly’s dad in Back to the Future, yet they all played in the Rangers game. Andy Melville and Phil Gray, also Butcher signings, are much more opaque.
The Rangers game is well remembered in Sunderland. Even the least sensationalist sources are sobering. The police officer in charge is cited in The Herald to have said that he would not welcome Rangers back. The Rangers chairman – also a Mr Murray – condemned the violence of a small number who travelled to Sunderland, calling them ‘hoodlums’. You can infer much from an inflated police bill, reportedly of £54,000. There was violence and damage. And it left a scar.
This was bad for the reputation of Rangers, but it was worse for the people in Sunderland who suffered.
I saw little of the violence. I was a student at the time, living away but in Sunderland with my dad, decorating my grandparents’ house. It was a short walk from there, for both of us, to the ground and back. I was only half conscious of the trouble surrounding the game. I was, however, fully conscious of the presence of Rangers as I took my seat in the main stand. They had the whole of the Clock Stand, there were a lot of them, and they were loud. Union Jacks were being waved. ’God save the Queen’ was sung and ‘Rule Britannia’.
I had never seen this sort of thing at a football match before. It was something beyond football.
The game itself was competitive enough. We scored on twenty-six minutes, Lee Howey putting the ball away nicely after a sort-of one-two with Gary Bennett. The testimonial man himself had started the move with an interception of a Rangers ball and then a trademark run forward.
Rangers equalised before half time and scored two more after, Mark Hately getting himself a second half brace. I had never seen Hateley play before. He had tremendous aerial presence. At one point in the game a cross was put in to our box and Hateley jumped for it somewhere around the six yard line. He connected powerfully, his header striking the bar and causing it to visibly reverberate.
It twanged like a banjo string, or so it seemed.
At some point, half time I think, a fan made it onto the pitch and kissed a Rangers scarf. The Fulwell End booed. He then produced a Sunderland scarf and kissed that too. When the police led him away the whole ground was cheering him.
Rangers proved too quick and too powerful for us. It was some consolation that we wouldn’t play anyone else as good as them for the rest of the season.
Tony Norman sat this game out. John Kay, Gordon Armstrong and Gary Owers played. Benno himself stayed on the whole game, but all of these players would be gone within three years. They belonged to a different era, most memorably for me, the Dennis Smith era. Kevin Ball and Micky Gray also played. They would go on to be associated with greater future success for the club.
Gary Bennett’s place in our collective memory, his successes and epic moments, the affection people felt for him as a player, these are things that transcend our memory of how good or bad the team were at the time, and that says a lot for Gary Bennett.