An eight-game unbeaten start to the season sounds positive, however under Mick Buxton at the beginning of the 1994-95 season – during which those eight games contained only two wins – that positivity was tempered somewhat.
Buxton had taken over from Terry Butcher just over a year earlier, and had steadied a ship that had only been heading in one direction under the ex-England skipper. Buxton had led the team to a fairly respectable 12th placed finish in the Endsleigh League Division One (oh, those heady heights...) after taking over a team teetering just above the relegation zone.
In truth, Buxton had a tough job. After backing Butcher in the transfer market, Murray had ‘departed’ the club a year ago too – John Featherstone taking over as chairman although Bob still retained ownership. Buxton hadn’t been able to make any summer signings at all – the only new addition came in the form of Ian Snodin, on loan from Everton for a month. From memory, Snodin had looked no better than what we had – newspaper commentary suggests he had been impressive during his spell. Regardless, he headed back to Goodison.
The reality was, Murray seemed to have lost interest – he wasn’t going to put any more money in, and the fans wanted him out. Former chairman Tom Cowie had offered £500,000 for Murray’s 68% stake – Bob demanded £1.9m to sell. The result was a standoff, and with the club having announced record losses of £1.5m a resolution was desperately needed.
This was the backdrop to which Buxton was working, and in truth, he’d done well come the end of October to have the team up to eighth position – wins at West Brom (3-1) and Reading (2-0) showed strong away form; in fact, by the time we travelled to Fratton Park on this day 27 years ago we’d played eight away from home, winning three and drawing three, a very respectable tally on the road. But we headed to Fratton Park on the back of two defeats – 2-3 away at Notts County, and 1-3 at home to Watford the previous Saturday.
In his pre-game press interviews, Buxton told The Journal.
The talk is all doom and gloom, but I don’t see it that way.
We were winning at Reading at a time when they were top of the division and people were talking about promotion.
Suddenly, the same people are talking about us becoming rubbish.
I’m not having that and I’m not going to let what other people say panic me into making wholesale changes willy nilly.
This is not the time to lose heart. It is a time when you have to keep your head and not react wildly.
He admitted the off-field-situation was affecting the club:
The off-field stuff hasn’t helped for quite a while. But we have to put that aside and get back to doing the things we are good at.
We have conceded three goals in each of our last two games, and I want us to get back to being hard to beat again.
I am adamant that a club could be in the bottom four at Christmas, and still win promotion this season by means of the play offs.
Buxton made two changes from the previous game. The first – Martin Gray replacing Snodin – was expected. The second was hugely controversial – record signing Don Goodman who was dropped by Sunderland for the first time in his three years at the club. Craig Russell took his place, and ultimately it spelled the beginning of the end for Goodman at Sunderland. He never started for the lads again, and was sold to Wolves a couple of weeks later.
And Buxton’s selection looked inspired when, after chances at both ends, Russell fired Sunderland into the lead after 19 minutes, set up by Martin Smith – who was really coming into his own as a fine player for the lads. Smith put the ball in from the left, Russell turned beautifully to fire home from 15 yards out.
Two minutes later it was 2-0, as Andy Melville tapped home a Smith corner from close range.
In the closing stages of the first half, Phil Gray put home a penalty after he was brought down by Daryl Powell as he turned inside the box.
Then, just before half time, Powell should have been red carded for a horrible two-footed tackle on Ord – it was a definite red card, even in an era in which robust tackling was allowed.
Typically, it was Powell who pulled a goal back for Pompey in the opening stages of the second half – this caused a bit of panic for Sunderland, and Creaney should have pulled another back.
But Sunderland regained control of the game, and Smith (who was likened to Chris Waddle in the match report) put the icing on the cake in the closing stages. He got the goal his performance deserved, tapping in after Gray looped a header over keeper Knight.
4-1, and all was right with the world again.
Well, for a week at least.
Portsmouth 1-4 Sunderland
Fratton Park, 7527.
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Ord, Atkinson, Ball, Melville, Owers, Gray (Ma), Russell, Gray (P), Smith. Subs not used: Norman, Armstrong, Goodman.
Goals: Russell (19) Melville (21) P Gray (pen, 41), Smith (86)
Portsmouth: Knight, Gittens, Dobson, McLoughlin (Radasavijevic 46), Totten, Neill, Pethick, Hall, Powell, Creaney, Burton. Subs not used: Flahaven, Kristensen
Goal: Powell (51)