Back on this day in 1994, Gary Owers played his final game for Sunderland – against the team he was about to join.
Unbeknown to Owers at the time, manager Mick Buxton was making the final call on his Sunderland career, and talks were ongoing to bring Bristol City’s Martin Scott to Wearside, with Owers offered in part exchange.
A product of the youth team, he’d made his debut for the club as an 18 year old in Denis Smith’s first game – a 1-0 win over Brentford in the club’s first-ever third tier fixture – before playing 320 times for the club, scoring 27 goals in seven and a half seasons at Roker.
Owers had been very highly rated during his early years at the club – he was regularly linked to some of the top teams of the time, including Liverpool and Forest – but had stayed loyal to Sunderland. Denis Smith had, indeed, touted him as a future England right back, but his versatility sometimes counted against him – as did the succession of poor managerial appointments that followed Smith’s departure.
The most recent of those appointments, Mick Buxton, had just celebrated his first anniversary at the club, but was struggling against a backdrop of turmoil. Discussions over a new ground at Nissan had all but died a death, and with Bob Murray having stepped down as chairman – despite still being the majority shareholder – there was no investment in the team at all.
Funds had been raised through the sale of Don Goodman a week earlier. One of the few assets the club had, Goodman was sold to Wolves for £1.2m – and Buxton had allegedly been given £1m of that to spend.
£300,000-rated Norwegian striker Petter Belsvik was on trial during the Norwegian season’s winter break, but it was reinforcements at the other end of the field that Buxton was eyeing up. And his primary target, Martin Scott, was in the Bristol City line up as Sunderland took to the Roker Park pitch sitting in 16th position.
Scott, who was 26 at the time, was highly rated as a dependable fullback who could provide a threat from free kicks and strike a pretty decent penalty, too.
Sunderland, coming into the game off the back of one win in eight, produced a laboured performance in front of a low pre-Christmas crowd of 11,661. Typically of performances under Mick Buxton, the football was attritional rather than flamboyant, and relied heavily on Gary Bennett marshalling the defence. Benno, who’d just turned 33, no longer held the captaincy at the club – but was still an impressive turn.
Derek Ferguson, who’d been signed by Terry Butcher the previous summer, had found the move from Scottish football tough, and was rarely able to impress himself on a game with any consistency – but against City he dominated the midfield contest.
Scott, playing in his usual left back slot, had a steady, composed game for Joe Jordan’s team – Dariusz Kubicki, operating in that role for Sunderland would soon be permanently moved back into his preferred right back position. Owers, occupying that berth today, put in an impressive display.
Scott picked up an early booking midway through the first half – no doubt eager to stamp his authority on the game – but it was striker Lee Howey who stole the show.
A beneficiary of Goodman’s departure, the former Bishop Auckland man struck twice – although both goals were incredibly scrappy.
The first deflected in off the heel of Keith Welch, while the second arrived after Armstrong’s drive hit Howey’s shins and flew in.
They all count.
It would be unfair to say it was a fitting end to Owers’ Sunderland career – the win was nice, yes, but neither he nor the crowd had any idea he was destined to leave the club.
Speaking to our Chris Wynn last year, Gary said:
The team was breaking up, I felt the spirit had gone, I lost a bit of confidence. When it came time to leave it was disappointing – it happened overnight. My last game was against Bristol City and I didn’t know at that point I’d be playing for Bristol City. It was my tenth season, and some of the lads who hadn’t been there as long as me were getting testimonials and I was sort of getting kicked out of the back door. When I went it was with a bit of a whimper, and for me to this day the saddest thing is that I never got a chance to go back and play against Sunderland.
While Martin Scott ended up being a decent signing for the club, I always feel it was a shortsighted decision to move Owers on, especially for that fee and to a club such as Bristol City. He was an energetic, talented player who loved the club and, at 26, was in the prime of his career. He’s the type of player who would have done well under Peter Reid, who was destined to replace Buxton only a few months later. Another Sliding Doors moment in SAFC history.