The Mick Buxton era isn’t one that’s remembered with any particular fondness; more something that was necessary at the time. A steady, flat-capped hand on the tiller, one eye on the field, the other on the pigeons, while the powers that be tried to find someone else to buy the club.
But, to be completely fair to Buxton – who, and I always find this remarkable, was only 50 when he was appointed Sunderland boss – he was dealt a bit of a duff hand.
While Bob Murray’s legacy for SAFC and the wider city can’t be argued, in truth, as a chairman and owner he blew hot and cold.
After years of refusing to back Denis Smith when he should, Murray had given previous manager Terry Butcher a sizeable transfer kitty. In the summer of 1993, Andy Melville, Phil Gray and Derek Ferguson all arrived for what were at the time decent fees. But after that didn’t work out, Butcher was axed and Murray took a step back too – appointing John Featherstone as chairman.
Murray was certainly keen on selling the club – rumours circulated about various new prospective owners, but the one that seemed to have most credibility at the time was one most Sunderland supporters were understandably hesitant about.
Cowie had been Sunderland chairman during the early-mid 80s, and his ownership had certainly been a low-point in the club’s history. He’d sacked Alan Durban, appointed Lawrie McMenemy and the club he’d taken over in the top flight was hurtling towards Division Three by the time he left.
Fast forward almost a year, and money was tight for Buxton – in fact, he’d not been allowed to make a single summer signing – and despite raising money by selling David Rush for £100,000, he wasn’t able to reinvest that money into the team.
Moves for two former England midfielders had been lined up on the understanding funds would be released. Manchester City’s former Liverpool hard man Steve McMahon and Nottingham Forest’s Neil Webb were close to joining the club, only for the proverbial rug to be pulled.
Sunderland were in limbo: Murray was waiting for someone to buy the club from him, and not prepared to invest into anything until it was resolved.
The Journal reported:
Chairman John Featherstone is still hoping that multi-millionaire motor magnate Sir Tom Cowie will buy out the controlling interest of Bob Murray and put money into the club for team building.
But Sir Tom has been dragging his feet. Now moves are taking place to either speed things up or find an alternative bidder.
Murray is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of a firm offer from Cowie.
The effect of the boardroom inertia has been spelled out forcefully in the last few days when it became apparent that manager Mick Buxton is not allowed to spend even £200,000 for a player under the current regime.
This was the backdrop to Sunderland’s 11th league fixture of a season. The season had started off with an eight game unbeaten run – six of them were draws, however – before two defeats, away at Tranmere and at home to the perennial early 90s pain in the arse, Southend. A two-legged league cup exit at the hands of Millwall had compounded the feeling of disillusionment.
The team had found the net only 10 times in those 12 games and, with regular keeper Tony Norman missing out on the fixture against the Baggies with a cartilage problem, and Martin Gray and Kevin Ball – who were both then recognised defenders – having to start in midfield, the team lined up like this:
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Bennett, Melville, Ord, Smith, Ball, Gray, Russell, Goodman, Gray. Subs: Musgrave, Rodgerson, Howey.
Kevin Ball had played the odd game for Sunderland in midfield prior to this game, but it was from here that he began becoming a midfield regular – that may not have happened if we’d signed Webb or McMahon.
And it was Bally who played a pivotal role in the first goal. Driving forward from midfield, he launched a low, 30 yarder that keeper Stuart Naylor could only parry, and Martin Smith had the simple task of tapping it in to an empty net.
Twenty six minutes gone, and Sunderland were a goal up – and only nine minutes late we doubled the lead. A long ball from defence found Phil Gray on the edge of box and the Northern Irishman lobbed the ball over Naylor to make it two.
Two became three midway through the second half, and it was Gray again on the scoresheet. A miscued pass in their own defence saw Goodman beating Strodder to the ball, and the former WBA man teed up Gray for his second.
Lee Ashcroft pulled one back for the hosts after an almighty scramble in the box, while Gray missed a sitter to complete his hat-trick, but the game finished 3-1 – and was certainly a triumph over adversity.
Of course, Tom Cowie’s second coming never materialised, and neither did any prolonged spell of form under Mick Buxton. The win at West Brom was followed by a further four unbeaten (three draws) before a run of two wins in 17 saw us plummet to 21st in the table.
The March fixture against Stoke saw the infamous Red Card protest against the ownership of Murray, who was letting the club stagnate while trying to find a buyer.
In the 28 league games that followed the West Brom victory, Sunderland picked up only 27 points (six wins, nine draws, 13 defeats) before Peter Reid strode into town, Sunderland picked up 12 points in seven games to stay up, and Bob Murray’s interest was once again piqued. Which, at the time, was a huge surprise.