While Terry Butcher’s spell as Sunderland manager is – rightly – considered something of a failure, it’s easy to forget that there were signs of genuine promise and quality amongst the dross.
We’d not seen a summer like it in terms of spending, and the majority of his signings – Andy Melville, Phil Gray and Alec Chamberlain, in particular – went on to have good careers with Sunderland. Derek Ferguson showed promise but could never get to grips with the English game, while Iain Rodgerson only returned to first-team contention when the hangman was readying his noose in November.
Rodgerson had been the most severely injured in the infamous pre-season car crash that saw the new signings suffer varying injuries. Phil Gray had only just returned to the team after needing glass to be removed from his head, including dangerously close to his eye.
The league campaign had gotten off to less than ideal start though. Starting with a 5-0 mauling by Marco-inspired Derby on the opening day of the season, we’d managed two wins, two draws and four defeats from the first eight which left us floundering near the bottom of the table.
We’d progressed through the first round of the Coca Cola Cup – a two-legged victory over Chester City – and had been rewarded with a two-legged tie against current top-flight champions Leeds United. We’d won the first leg 2-1 at Roker Park, a late goal from Phil Gray sealing the victory against Howard team.
This prompted a revival of sorts – two draws and a win in the league – and we headed to Elland Road knowing that we faced a tough, tough test against the team who’d stunned football by claiming the title the season before. It was no fluke, however – they were a tremendous team.
Before the game, Butcher was under no illusion of the enormity of the task that awaited his team.
We are not going to go there and defend with five at the back, If we try and hang on we are going to get swamped and they could score six or seven.
We need to do the same as we did in the first game and attack Leeds. The only way to approach it is to have a right go at them. We will almost certainly need to score to be sure of going through.
If we look too closely at their side we would have to field our entire 16-man squad to beat them. It’s a difficult tie but I believe we have a good chance in a on-off situation like this.
I am sure Leeds will come out flying. But the lads are dying to get down there and have a go. We gave them a shock up here and we are unbeaten since then. But they will be much better prepared this time. They have had someone watch us at every match.
Leeds put some early pressure on the Sunderland defence as you’d expect – Brian Deane and Gary McAllister forcing superb saves from Alec Chamberlain – but it was Sunderland that drew first blood in the contest, with record signing Don Goodman heading in from an Owers free kick.
Sunderland’s new-look strikeforce, prompted by a stellar midfield display from Derek Ferguson in particular, were causing the champions all manner of problems, and after just over half an hour it was two for Sunderland.
Ferguson’s pass was cut out by an uncertain Leeds defence – Jon Newsome’s back pass to Beeney was a touch short, and Phil Gray pounced; the keeper’s clearance was blocked at close range by the Northern Ireland international, and found its way into the back of the net.
Debutant Noel Whelan grabbed one back for the hosts, but that was all they could muster. In fact, it was Sunderland who looked more likely to add to the scoresheet – Goodman forcing a spectacular fingertip save from Beeney, while Phil Gray’s header was cleared off the line.
Another 2-1 win, a double over the champions of the country, and it looked like we really might be onto something.
Now we must repeat that performance in the First Division. We are stil second bottom, but that result can kickstart our season if the lads rect in the right way.
It should give them a lot of confidence and much bigger belief in themselves.
We gave our supporters a lot of pleasure. They deserved something after travelling down in such atrocious conditions.
Aston Villa – and Mark Bosnich – lay in wait in the next round. For now, however, we were left with hope that things under Butcher were finally getting on track.
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Martin Gray, Ord, Ferguson, Bennett (Michael Gray 71), Melville, Owers, Ball, Goodman, Gray (Howey 85), Armstrong. Sub not used: Norman
Leeds: Beeney, Kelly, Dorigo, Newsome, Fairclough, Weatherall (Rocastle 66), Strachan (Strandli 70), McAllister, Deane, Whelan, Speed. Sub not used: Lukic