The appointment of Lawrie McMenemy in 1985, following the club’s relegation from the top flight to the second division, was heralded by all.
But on this day in 1987, it all came to a catastrophic end, as McMenemy disappeared under the cover of darkness, and Sunderland were left hurtling towards the Third Division.
At the time of his appointment, McMenemy was a manager at the top of his game – as reflected in the £150,000-per-year base salary and seat at the boardroom table offered to him to drop down a division to manage the club.
He was seen as the man to lead Sunderland back to glories not dreamed of since before the war.
But his spell at Sunderland – officially as Managing Director – couldn’t be described as anything but a disaster. A raft of ageing players had been signed on bumper contracts in an attempt to replicate the strategy that had brought success at Southampton.
However, for every Kevin Keegan there was a Steve Hetzke, for every Alan Ball a Steve Doyle, and for every Peter Shilton a Seamus McDonagh. And all it managed to do at Sunderland was lumber the club with overpaid, underperforming players with little appetite for a relegation battle, and little to no resale value.
Despite a terrible run of form, it was – apparently – McMenemy’s decision to leave the club, placed perilously in the relegation zone. Murray’s hesitation to pull the trigger potentially due to boardroom distraction, or maybe the need to pay off McMenemy’s contract should his employment be terminated.
A 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield United – future Sunderland loan star Peter Beagrie equalising Dave Swindlehurst’s opener, before former Newcastle striker Peter Withe bagged a late winner, turned out to be the final straw.
However, the day before his departure, McMenemy sacked both long-term assistant Lew Chatterley and winger Terry Curran, who’d made an ‘obscene gesture’ at supporters during a Central League game against Manchester City.
To replace Chatterley, McMenemy promoted his son, Chris, who’d been working with the youth team, while former England international Ray Kennedy was charged with replacing McMenemy junior.
It all had the feeling of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, even more so when, 24 hours later, McMenemy fled Roker Park for the final time.
It forced Bob Murray into a big decision – his first managerial appointment – and he turned quickly to 56-year-old Bob Stokoe, who had, of course, lifted the FA Cup for the club in 1973, as the man to lead a rescue mission.
Stokoe, while better remembered as Sunderland’s early-mid 70s leader, was, up until that point, an active football manager. He’d managed Carlisle from 1980 to 1986 and was only three years older than Bobby Robson who, of course, managed into the 2000s.
However, the nine games Stokoe led Sunderland for at the end of the 1986-87 season – beginning two days later with a 3-2 away defeat to Bradford, after going into the last 12 minutes 2-1 up, were his last in football and he stepped down from the caretaker role the day after the play-off defeat to Gillingham.
Whether keeping Sunderland up in a blaze of glory would have tempted Stokoe to throw his trilby in the ring to keep the job full time will never be known. Publicly, at least, he was only ever looking to the end of the season and, when it came laden in disappointment, he quickly stepped down – clearing the manager’s desk at Roker Park the day after relegation was confirmed – but with Bob Murray’s offer of a ‘job for life’ still fresh in his mind.
Stokoe took his share of the blame – after all, the team had only taken eight points from the seven league games he was in charge for.
However, in a reference to both McMenemy and potentially Bob Murray, he said if he’d been brought in earlier he could have done more.
“The six games before I arrived were crucial,” Stokoe told the local press at the time. “Only one point was taken out of eighteen, and I just wish I could have been in charge for one or two of those games.
“I have put my heart and soul into trying to save the club from relegation. I love Sunderland football club, and I can honestly say that I gave my best. Sadly, in the final analysis, it wasn’t good enough.”
To underline the magnitude of the challenge awaiting the new manager, Stokoe said, “I must admit I just didn’t realise how bad things were. The relationship between manager, coaches, players and the media had totally disintegrated.
“I had to try and put all those things right in a month.”
The search for the new Sunderland manager began immediately, however, Murray warned it could take six or seven weeks until the new man was in place. That said, with a significant amount of surgery needed to build a squad capable of competing at the top end of division three, a new manager needed to be in place, sooner rather than later.
Despite relegation, the job at Roker Park was an attractive one. The club’s reputation was still strong, and its previous incumbent had commanded the highest salary in English football. On the flip side, the unrest at boardroom level was well documented.
Dave Watson, who had lined up for Stokoe’s Sunderland side of the seventies and had only finished his own playing career a season before, was an early name to be linked to the job – surprisingly so, given his lack of managerial experience.
Another former Sunderland player, Colin Todd, was also rumoured, as was Graham Carr, the then Northampton manager who later scouted for Newcastle United, and Bruce Rioch.
Two of the more intriguing names mentioned in dispatches in the early days of Murray’s search were Alan Durban, and Malcolm Macdonald.
Durban, of course, had enjoyed a spell as Sunderland manager earlier in the decade, building a young, attractive side that was competing well in the top flight, before being sacked by Cowie and replaced by Len Ashurst. (As an aside, Durban’s time at Sunderland is covered in the excellent Give Us Tomorrow Now, by David Snowdon. If you haven’t read it, I can heartily recommend it.)
After leaving Sunderland, however, Durban had spent time at Cardiff City, overseeing consecutive relegations from Division Two to Division Four, which raised question marks over his suitability for a return to Roker to tackle Division Three.
Malcolm Macdonald was interested in the job, according to his long-time friend, local journalist John Gibson, who wrote, “My belief is that Supermac would return to the northeast to manage Sunderland, even though his reputation was built a little further up the road.”
Macdonald had previously had a relatively successful spell in charge at Fulham and was evidently determined to get back into management. He didn’t get the Sunderland job, of course, but was soon back in the game at Huddersfield Town.
Two former Leeds players who’d played against Sunderland in 1973 were strongly linked. Barnsley manager Allan Clarke, who’d done a good job on a shoestring budget was under consideration, as was former Bradford City manager, the ex Leeds defender Trevor Cherry.
Cherry had allegedly been approached by Murray in the immediate aftermath of McMenemy’s departure but had asked for a three-year deal, which Murray didn’t find palatable given the team’s predicament.
Cherry had spent a successful time as Bradford manager, before being sacked early in 1987, a decision that had provoked supporter unrest at Valley Parade, which the club had returned to the month before.
The 1985 Bradford stadium fire, in which 56 people lost their lives, resulted in a spell playing at nearby rugby league ground, Odsal Stadium, Leeds United’s Elland Road, and Huddersfield’s Leeds Road. The way Cherry had managed the club through a devastating period of its history was regarded highly.
Bobby Ferguson – a north east native who’d been Bobby Robson’s assistant at Ipswich before taking the Portman Road reins when Robson left for England – was also heavily linked. Ferguson had become the first Ipswich manager to ever be sacked when he failed to get the side promoted at the first attempt in the 1986-87 season – a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Charlton Athletic seeing his five-year spell in charge come to an end.
Lou Macari was an early withdrawal from the running – the Scot deciding to stay at Swindon, while other names to be linked included former Sunderland coach Peter Eustace – then coaching at Sheffield Wednesday – Scunthope’s Mick Buxton, and Bobby Saxton, out of work after his spell at Blackburn. Buxton and Saxton – as well as Bobby Ferguson – of course all appeared at Sunderland as the years progressed.
Former Sunderland player and manager Len Ashurst – the man replaced by McMenemy after relegation in 1985 – was also rumoured to be under consideration.
“I’m convinced I would have taken Sunderland straight back up,” he said.
“Certainly, I could stake my reputation, my mortgage and my family on the fact I would never have taken them into the third division.
“That’s a tragedy, and I’m tremendously saddened by it, both as a former Sunderland player and manager.
“There are guilty men, and I could name three, but it isn’t me to do that. All I know is that the current chairman [Murray] – a very nice man – has a huge task on his hands.”
As it was, and despite Murray suggesting the search for a new manager could take a couple of months, he moved swiftly and decisively, offering the job to York City’s manager Denis Smith – a mere 12 days after that Gillingham game.
And so began a new chapter in Sunderland’s history.