The period 1992-1995 was one of marked mediocrity for Sunderland. The two-leg League Cup wins over Leeds in the autumn of 1993 were stand out games, but there weren’t many others. Both Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton had some good players but little success.
I spent this period at university in Swansea. I would go and watch them play sometimes. This gave me perspective.
They were in a lower league than us and playing to meagre crowds at the Vetch. It was a nice touch that, noting my arrival in the city, Swansea City AFC signed more and more former Sunderland players. Colin West played up front and Reuben Agboola was at the back. John Cornforth was a regular. Colin Pascoe returned there from Sunderland, and Tony Cullen starred in the 1992-1993 season.
Back in Sunderland, Peter Reid arrived to keep us up at the end of the 1995 season. We lost one out of seven and it looked like we were coming out of the wilderness. But the next year started with only one win from the first five league games and it seemed that we would again putter along, just as uninspired as we had been before the new manager’s arrival.
If Sunderland were in the wilderness it was clear many of the fans had joined them. Just under 14,000 turned up to see the Southend game at Roker Park on the 9th September 1995. You are only ever two or three consecutive wins away from winning back a good few thousand at Sunderland, but the lack of enthusiasm so early in the new season was understandable.
Some passionate fans will say, after yet another defeat: I’m finished, X years man and boy, I’ve never seen such rubbish. The very vehemence with which they speak lets us know they will be back: they feel too strongly not to be. Some people just get fed up.
Well, everybody was about to get un-fed up. Only looking back, you might not have seen it coming at the beginning of September 1995.
I took my future wife to this game; her first football match and the only time she went to Roker Park: a privilege that so many younger fans now would have loved. When I asked her what she remembered she told me that it seemed a much smaller ground than the SoL. This will sadden those who remember the glory days of Roker Park and games of white hot excitement played out to more people than have ever filled the Stadium of Light. She also remembered that everything was red and white. She’d seen me, a lone Sunderland shirt wearer, down in Swansea, and now here I was with everybody else wearing the same. It was like ET had gone home.
We stood in the paddocks of the Clock Stand, near to the Fulwell End; well placed for the game’s only goal.
Mike Marsh made his debut for Southend that day, having signed for former Liverpool team-mate and then manager, Ronnie Whelan. It would be good to comment on something he did in this match but I don’t remember him or his team-mates doing very much of any note at all.
Our team included Martin Scott, Andy Melville, Paul Bracewell 3.0, and two talented Grays. You look at that starting XI now and see players we would love to have playing for us today.
Despite the calibre of our team the game was a hum-drum affair. The sides cancelled each other out and there were few chances on goal.
The one glorious, game changing moment came towards the end of the first half and without any promising preamble.
Craig Russell picked up the ball from a Sunderland headed pass, near the middle of the park, and went past his man. He then ran hard at the Southend defence, passing through two further players and on into the box. Somewhere between the eighteen and six yard lines he shot into the corner. The ball evaded the outstretched leg of a defender and the dive of the keeper.
From where I was standing, not far from pitch level, you could see how quick Craig Russell was.
It was a brilliant, self-made goal and all the more remarkable because the game gave no hint of it coming, and quickly settled back into its previous monotony.
The only other incident of note I remember was Kevin Ball’s sending off. He had been booked very early on but his decision to try to sever the leg of a Southend player from his body, with the ball metres away, with thirty minutes to go, and somewhere near the middle of the park, was a strange one. Ball was a great player for us but this was rash.
I’m told that Kevin Ball was just starting his transition to midfield at this time: a tactical change that would prove fruitful for Sunderland in the long term, but required the player to quickly adjust his game.
After the sending off we were left with thirty minutes to endure, expecting Southend to attack. Brian Atkinson came on to bolster the midfield. Sam Aiston and Martin Smith joined him late in the game. However, no great Southend offensive materialised. It ended 1-0 to us.
We went home happy with the win but not expecting too much for the future.
But as Craig Russell’s goal had seemingly come from nowhere so did we that season. We were fifteenth after beating Southend. We ended the season as champions. From this game we went on to win a lot and draw a fair bit. Somewhere around the middle of February 1996 we decided losing wasn’t for us. We won nine games in a row and lost only one more that season, on the final day, when it was already decided.
We were coming out of the wilderness when we beat Southend, and we were going to do just fine.