After being given his debut by Denis Smith as a 17-year-old in a home fixture against Watford in 1991, Craig Russell went on to play 174 times for the lads, scoring 34 goals.
The last of his 118 starts for the club came 24 years ago today, in an away game at Middlesbrough in the Coca Cola Cup.
Both Boro and Sunderland had been relegated from the top flight the season before – Boro by virtue of the fact they caught a cold and couldn’t play Blackburn, while Sunderland’s downfall was a lack of goals: Russell was one of four player – including Kevin Ball – who top scored with four in all competitions.
Middlesbrough and Sunderland were walking very different paths at this moment in time: Boro, backed by Steve Gibson’s millions, had a big-name manager in Bryan Robson (unless you were around at the time it’s hard to understand just how much of a coup that was, and how much credibility it instantly gave Boro), and had signed the likes of Juninho, Ravanelli, Festa, Beck Emerson and Branco, as well as having a solid smattering of experienced domestic players, including Paul Merson.
Sunderland, having been promoted in Reid’s first full season, had gone down the ‘experience mixed with youth approach’ for the following campaign – Niall Quinn, Tony Coton, Paul Stewart and Paul Bracewell were blended with the likes of Russell, Michael Bridges and Martin Smith.
Boro had reached the Coca Cola Cup final the season before – beaten in a replay by Leicester City – but ultimately both teams had dropped through the Premier League trapdoor on the season’s final day – Sunderland at Wimbledon, Boro’s tears shed at Elland Road.
Understandably, both teams were among the pre-season favourites to get back to the top flight – three defeats in the opening four league games had dented Sunderland’s confidence, and while things had picked up a little with wins over Oxford, Bradford and Birmingham, our rollercoaster start go the season had dipped again – a home defeat against Middlesbrough was followed by that Reading game... and pressure was building on Peter Reid.
So another game against Middlesbrough was just what was needed.
Summer signing Kevin Phillips had missed a few games through an injury picked up against Birmingham, and with Niall Quinn sidelined too, it had been Michael Bridges, Martin Smith and John Mullin who’d been tried upfront – Russell left on the bench, if featuring at all.
In hindsight, Russell’s absence is puzzling – he was a natural replacement for Phillips, but evidently Reid had decided he wanted to move him on. Reid had accepted a bid from Manchester City for Russell in the summer, although Russell had failed the medical. Ironically enough, Middlesbrough wanted him too, but Reid didn’t want to sell to a rival. But once Reid had made his mind up about someone, that was that.
The game itself was a disappointing affair. After dominating large patches of the game Sunderland should have been ahead, but ended up losing the game 2-0 – the first coming from speed merchant Andy Campbell, who slotted past Edwin Zoetebier after been sent through by Emerson.
Criag Hignett made it 2-0 in the final minute – finishing strongly at the backpost – and Sunderland’s league cup campaign was over for another year.
A disappointing night of football was compounded by the fact the smoggies decided to lob blocks of concrete and stones at the team coach as it approached the A19 on route back to Sunderland. Countless windows were smashed, as was the windscreen, to top off a cracking night.
Sunderland’s season did pick up from here, however – a 3-1 win over Huddersfield the following Saturday got us back on track, and with Reid making sweeping changes to the team he landed on a line up that produced some of the most exciting football we’d seen in seasons. We finished third that year – Middlesbrough (who again reached the Coca Cup Final, and again got beat) finishing second.
But out own upturn was without Craig Russell, who Reid finally forced out of the door a few weeks later (after one final sub game, away at Stoke). Russ passed a medical at Manchester City at the second time of asking, and Nicky Summerbee headed in the opposite direction.
Summerbee’s arrival was the catalyst for what followed over the next few years, so it’s impossible to argue Reidy didn’t make the right call – however, after so many years at his boyhood club, and so many great memories – including Old Trafford and that Millwall game amongst others, Craig Russell probably deserved a lot better.