After Denis Smith’s side were relegated from Barclays Division One in May 1990 at Maine Road, Sunderland limped painfully through the first half of the 1990’s.
As the football fraternity in England marvelled at the introduction of the Premier League after its inaugural season in 1992-93, and then basked in the limelight with their initial £305 million deal with Sky, Sunderland seemed to drift further from the top flight year after year.
Malcolm Crosby had given us respite with a FA Cup run that ended up in defeat at Wembley to an uncompromising Liverpool side in the final, but we just could not get it right when it came to maintaining consistency in Division Two and then Division One as it then fed into the Premier League.
Transfer funds were provided to Terry Butcher, who followed Crosby into the Roker Park hotseat after initially joining as a player in the twilight of his career, but these funds had arguably come three years too late and instead of consolidating our position in the top flight the money did nothing more than provide another false dawn.
Instead of looking to get out of the second tier to progress to the promised land of the glitz and prestige of being analysed by Richard Keys and Andy Gray on a Monday evening, we were looking over our shoulder at the prospect of taking our second trip to the third tier in the club’s history.
Only five points adrift in our first season down from the top flight was followed by a final day scare where we stayed up via a single point advantage over Brentford and Cambridge United.
It was only the brief improvement we found under Mick Buxton, once he had replaced Butcher in the second half of the following season, that we felt positively giddy when we finished in the dizzy heights of 12th in the Endsleigh League Division One in 1993-94.
Yet again, things slipped back the next year into the routine of Division One strugglers, as Sunderland hovered dangerously close to the relegation zone once again. Mick Buxton was provided funds via the addition of John Fickling to the Sunderland board, and Brett Angell was signed from Everton for £600,000 and Dominic Matteo added on-loan from Liverpool.
They both made their debuts against Danny Wilson’s Barnsley at Oakwell, and after a 2-0 defeat where Angell failed to threaten the Barnsley goal and Matteo would now lead to an FA investigation as he was not properly registered to play, the club was in trouble as new board member John Fickling described on the Roker Rapport podcast.
Going into the club, having been successful in business you expect a very professional outfit - it was quite the opposite and it literally was just a sports club. I got a bit of a shock really.
Mick Buxton was sacked following that defeat at Oakwell and as Sunderland sat a point above Bristol City, who occupied the final relegation position, and the pressure was on to get it right.
Maybe because expectations were low, what happened next came as a surprise. Former England international Peter Reid had resumed his playing career after being unfortunate to lose his job as Manchester City manager in late 1993 after finishing a place above Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United as they ended up 5th in the top flight the previous season, and was offered the job until the end of the season.
It was a tall order for the ex-Everton midfielder, as he faced seven games to save the club from the drop on the back of a run of six defeats in the previous seven fixtures and first up was the visit of promotion chasing Sheffield United to Roker Park.
Dave Bassett’s side were sitting 6th in the table and were travelling to Sunderland as we held the distinction of having the worst home record in the Division One by winning only 3 out of 19 attempts at Roker Park to that point.
It was a typically bright spring day of only the type Roker Park seemed to generate - bright sunshine, blowing a gale and freezing cold. The conditions ended up dictating the type of game and it needed the introduction of Craig Russell from the bench with twenty minutes remaining to change the game, but as it turned out he should have been in the starting XI.
Peter Reid admitted after the game that he actually mixed up Martin Smith and Craig Russell and had meant to have their roles reversed with Smith originally pencilled in to take a place on the bench.
As it turned out, the new manager made an inspired change when only four minutes after his introduction a ball over the top to the 21-year-old forced defender David Tuttle into a challenge that he got terribly wrong, and as a result was shown the red card by referee Scott Mathieson.
Then, in the 89th minute, Sunderland took the lead through Russell and what would be on of the most important goals of Peter Reid’s time at the club, as the striker explained on the Roker Rapport podcast.
The ball came over the top and the ball was bobbling all over the place, so I thought I’m going to smash this as hard as I can. I did and it looped up in the air and I thought “please go in!”. It was like slow motion and luckily enough it trickled over the line. It was a massive relief to get off to a good start with the new manager.
It was the game and the goal that was the catalyst to not only staying up that season, but that led to two championships and two unforgettable years in the top half of the Premier League, where we even flirted with the league leaders into the new year.
Halcyon days indeed, and all started with a last minute Craig Russell winner.
Sunderland: Norman, Kubicki, Bennett, Ord, Scott, Agnew, Ferguson (Martin Gray), Atkinson, Smith, Angell (Russell), P. Gray Substitute not used: Preece
Sheffield United: Kelly, Gage, Tuttle, Beesley, Nilsen, Rogers, Hartfield (Hodges), Veart, Black, Whitehouse (Scott), Blake Substitute not used: Tracey