Heading into the latter stages of the 1994-95 season, Mick Buxton had decided he’d had enough. With the club floating around the bottom reaches of the Endsleigh League Division One – as it was then – the flat-capped former Huddersfield boss informed the board he’d leave at the end of the season ‘whatever the outcome of the campaign’.
That he’d have been afforded another season, given the way the previous 12 months had gone, was fanciful at best. While he had steadied the ship after the tumultuous reign of Terry Butcher, Buxton hadn’t been able to progress the team – in reality, after brief improvement, he’d returned it to where he’d found it. Struggling towards the lower reaches of the second tier.
A number of players we’ve interviewed on Roker Rapport have spoken in glowing terms about Buxton, a manager they believe was ahead of his time, particularly in game preparation. However, it wasn’t at all evident on the field.
At the time of Buxton’s notice of abdication, relegation wasn’t more than a marginal threat. The team had been picking up enough wins here and there to not be dragged into serious trouble.
Six defeats in the following seven games, however – punctuated only by a home win against Stoke City, the day of the ‘red card protest’ – saw trouble speeding up in the rearview mirror.
The board were prompted to act.
Sunderland: getting left behind
It’s important to understand the context of the boardroom situation at the time.
History judges Bob Murray’s tenure as Sunderland owner very kindly, and it’s all to do with what happened next.
At this point in time, Murray had been in charge at the club for the best part of a decade, seizing control of the club after a bitter boardroom battle with ‘rebel shareholder’ Barry Batey.
He’d overseen our first-ever relegation to Division Three but appointed Denis Smith, who performed relative miracles on a mediocre budget.
By a stroke of luck, we were promoted to the top flight, and again Murray failed to invest – a modest £700,000 transfer budget was never going to turn a sixth-placed Division Two team into a successful First Division outfit... but Smith almost made it work.
Relegation, of course, ensued. Gabbiadini’s departure was followed by Smith; the appointment of Crosby, who had zero track record as a manager, seemed a reward for taking the team to Wembley, regardless of the dire league performances the team produced.
Crosby departed to be replaced by Butcher, who was the one manager Murray decided to back with half-decent funds – £2m. The former England captain did make some decent signings, but was a disaster and lasted less than a year before being replaced by Buxton, who was on Butcher’s coaching staff.
It was the third ‘internal’ appointment in a row. Promoting from the ‘bootroom’ was a smart approach for Liverpool in the ’80s. For Sunderland in the ’90s, it summed up the small-time nature of the boardroom.
On the day of appointing Buxton, Murray also took a ‘step back’ – appointing John Featherstone as chairman. In reality, Featherstone was merely a frontman. Murray was still pulling the strings.
This was a time of great momentum in English football. The hooliganism issues that had blighted the 80s had subsided; football was ‘cool’ again. The Premier League was taking off, and up the road, Kevin Keegan and John Hall had breathed an abundance of energy, enthusiasm, dreams and belief into a club that was similarly in the doldrums.
While they had John Hall, we had Bob Murray.
And while they had Keegan, we had Buxton.
They’d taken advantage, while we’d spent the past three years watching on – sitting on our hands in what was an incredibly frustrating dereliction of duty.
All of these factors collided to create a storm. The ‘Supporters Action for Change’ group were vociferous in their protests for boardroom change.
A ballot organised by the group – at the time the biggest ballot in British football history – gauged the sentiment of match-going Sunderland supporters. Of the 8247 fans balloted, 98.24% registered a vote of no confidence in Murray and the board.
The aforementioned red card protest was a very visible example of the growing anger, and there was a constant push for change.
From the shadows, however, Murray was able to – on the surface of it at least – ignore.
The search for Buxton’s replacement
The fact Buxton had given notice of his intention to quit meant the board were in the unusual position of being able to search for a manager for the future, rather than for the here and now.
Three names were constantly named in the press as top targets to replace Buxton in the manager’s seat.
Brian Horton, the-then Manchester City manager, was strongly linked. Horton had done a good job at Hull, Oxford and City, and was at the time viewed as a manager with tremendous potential.
The two other names were more tantalising at the time – Chris Waddle and Ally McCoist.
This was an era in which player-managers were in vogue. Glenn Hoddle’s sterling job – and performances – at Swindon and then Chelsea – had caught the attention of chairmen up and down the country.
Sheffield Wednesday’s 34-year-old Waddle was viewed as someone who could have a similar effect to that which Keegan had had at Newcastle; 32-year-old McCoist – who at the time was a frequent visitor to Roker Park when his Rangers playing commitments allowed – offered similar temptation. A talismanic player as well as a manager – the appeal was understandable.
Of course, we didn’t go with any of these options – hindsight tells us we didn’t miss out on too much in the managerial stakes – but who knows how either Waddle or McCoist would have gotten on? It would have been fun.
They’d have certainly got the crowd on-side, initially even more so than the man who was chosen to be Buxton’s successor.
The arrival of the new messiah
Reid, who allegedly had been identified in the weeks preceding as the preferred choice as the next Sunderland manager, was appointed hours after Buxton’s departure ‘by mutual consent’ was announced. Puzzlingly, Buxton left less than a week after being allowed to spend £600,000 on Everton forward Brett Angell – a frequent scourge of Sunderland while at Southend – and less than 48 hours after the ‘dreaded vote of confidence’.
Angell had made his debut in Buxton’s last game in charge, a windswept defeat that also saw the debut of Dominic Matteo – who, it transpired, hadn’t been correctly registered and had to return to Liverpool. Fortunately, the club escaped a points deduction, and Matteo avoided the ignominy of being the only player in the history of football to register a negative points per game total for a club.
Angell’s signing hadn’t marked the opening of purse strings by Bob Murray – far from it. New director John Fickling’s investment was quickly spent by Buxton; astonishing when you consider his impending departure.
Just how true it was that the board had spent the previous two weeks assessing managers and lining Reid up for the end of the season is unknown. It seems unlikely any Sunderland board would have been that proactive. Still, a swift appointment was made, suggesting they weren’t left scratching around and calling people up for references.
Bob Murray’s reign is synonymous with Peter Reid, however on the day of Reid’s appointment he was flanked by deputy chairman Graham Wood and Fickling. Murray, still in the shadows, was nowhere to be seen.
Reid spoke well at his press conference – easy to say in hindsight, but he was in stark contrast to the dour Buxton. Although only in his early 50s, Buxton had the aura of a man of much later years. Reid, 38, exuded positivity, confidence and enthusiasm.
It certainly reaped dividends for Murray – success on the pitch nullified the Supporters Action For Change group, and he quickly retook the reins once the team was heading in the right direction.
And more through luck than good judgement, Sunderland were back on track.