On this day in 1985, summer signing Frank Gray was preparing to return to his former stomping ground, Elland Road, to face a Leeds United team managed by his brother, Eddie.
The 31-year-old Scottish left back had played almost 400 games for Leeds in two spells at the club – punctuated by a couple of seasons with Cloughie’s Forest, where in 1980 he won the European Cup, a competition he’d been a runner up in with Leeds in 1975.
Gray was one of a number of signings made by new manager Lawrie McMenemy, who was appointed after Len Ashurst’s departure at the end of the previous season.
McMenemy’s task of getting Sunderland back to the top flight at the first time of asking hadn’t gotten off to the best of starts. In fact, it would be hard to imagine it being much worse.
Going into the game at Elland Road, our seventh of the season, we’d lost the first five, conceding ten and scoring none.
A 3-3 draw at home to Grimsby – coming back from 3-1 down – had at least provided some goals and a point, but left Sunderland firmly stuck to the bottom of the table.
Looking back, it’s puzzling why the team struggled so badly. Barry Venison, Nick Pickering, Shaun Elliott, Eric Gates, David Hodgson, Gary Bennett, Reuben Agboola and Gray, among others, were all players comfortable at the top level, but McMenemy just couldn’t mould them into anything resembling a team.
And so it was to Elland Road. Gray versus Gray. Younger brother facing the older brother who’d sold him.
In the build up, Frank recalled his first return to Elland Road, for Forest – he scored in the first minute and Clough’s men went on to record a 4-1 win.
“I’ll settle for a repeat of that on Saturday,” he said. “I had a lot of good years there but loyalties change in football. I’m a Sunderland player now and I’ll be looking to put one over Leeds on Saturday.
“We’re certainly not as bad as our position in the league suggests. Although we haven’t won a game yet we’ve played a lot better in our last two or three matches and the pressure won’t just be on us.
“We’re after our first win of the season, but Leeds have not won at home yet.”
As the game got underway it looked as though history may repeat itself, Gray opening the scoring for Sunderland in the 22nd minute, firing home from just outside the left edge of the box with his right foot after an incisive move from the left wing involving Gray, Pickering and Clive Walker; Gray’s shot deflecting off Neil Aspin’s back.
A string of good chances were missed, and Gates denied a clear penalty, before, in true Sunderland fashion, we retreated and retreated, allowing the opposition into the game, and John Sheridan equalised with fewer than ten minutes remaining.
McMenemy didn’t have to wait much longer for a league victory – his side overcame Shrewsbury next time out. But we all know how that one ended.
Eddie Gray, who’d played against us in the 73 Cup Final, had initially taken over at Leeds as player manager in 1982, after they’d been relegated to Division Two. They’d just missed out on promotion on the final day of the season in 1984/85, and he paid the price for his team’s slow start to this season, losing his job the following month – bringing an end to a 20-year association with the club.
Frank went on to make a good contribution to Sunderland over the next four seasons, despite the first two seasons culminating in relegation. A quality performer, he was an important member of Denis Smith’s team that won the Third Division championship, and consolidated well the following year. Like fellow big-name McMenemy signing Eric Gates, he managed to redeem himself in the eyes of supporters.
The performances of his son Andy, unfortunately, aren’t remembered as fondly… but the least said about that the better.