Peter Reid had taken over the reins from Mick Buxton with seven games remaining at the end of March 1995. The ex-England internationals one and only task was to ensure survival in the Endsleigh League Division One, and neither Reid or the Sunderland board were looking beyond that first hurdle.
It was against the backdrop of poor signings on transfer deadline in the form of Brett Angell for a hefty £600,000 from Everton who wasn’t working out on the pitch, and Dominic Matteo on-loan from Liverpool, who didn’t work out off the pitch, as he’d been registered incorrectly and had almost cost us points via punishment from the FA.
He’d taken over ahead of the visit of Dave Bassett’s promotion-chasing Sheffield United side on the 1st April as the side were on a run of six defeats in the last seven, and Sunderland hovered one place and one point above the relegation zone due to the fact that four were relegated out of the division during the 1994-95 season.
After winning that first game against the Blades at Roker Park thanks to a Craig Russell strike, we would then pick up four points from a possible nine with another win at Derby County, a draw at home to Luton Town, and a defeat away to Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park courtesy of John McGinlay.
This run of one defeat in four had managed to put some daylight between Sunderland and the bottom four, but survival wasn’t guaranteed yet as Steve McMahon’s Swindon Town still had a game in hand as they trailed Sunderland by five points.
So with three games to go, it was in Swindon Town’s hands - beat Sunderland at Roker Park and they’re game in hand, and they were in the driving seat with two games remaining. To add to this our next fixture was away to Burnley who were also in trouble at the wrong end of the table and were hoping for the two sides above them to slip up.
As it did so often at Roker Park, even seemingly in the height of summer, it was blowing a gale, and the rain was coming down in sheets - sideways.
Richard Ord had been given the captain’s armband as Kevin Ball was suspended and Gary Bennett was missing Sunderland’s bid for survival through injury. Other big injury blows came in the form of firstly, Steve Agnew who had been impressive in midfield since signing in January, and secondly Derek Ferguson who had picked up a knock in Reid’s first game in charge.
This meant that Martin Smith returned to the starting line-up after having to settle for a place on the bench for our trip to Bolton in the previous fixture.
In terms of the Swindon Town side, we were maybe just fortunate that Steve McMahon was suspended or it may have been too tempting for Peter Reid to put his boots back on continue their battles from Merseyside derbies past.
As the game started, it was clear that it didn’t need two tough tackling ex-England internationals to raise the temperature as the conditions dictated that every tackle was an out of control sliding tackle, which in the modern day would revoke a VAR review from each and every tackle.
It was frantic and had the feel of a cup-tie - winner takes all - and Sunderland nearly nudged ahead early on through new signing Brett Angell, who was still searching for his first goal for the club.
As a Brian Atkinson shot deflected and bounced to Angell on the edge of the box, he turned and shot on the half volley and could only watch as his shot beat Fraser Digby, but his the outside of the post.
Swindon then had a glorious chance as the Sunderland back four conspired to get into all sorts of problems mid-way inside our own half which resulted in Peter Thorne charging in on goal at the Fulwell End with only Norman to beat, and as he’d done on so many occasions, the Welsh international came to our rescue with a fantastic save to keep the game goalless.
As a result of the mess our defensive had got themselves into, Richard Ord was injured in the process, and on the day he led the side out, was replaced by Anthony Smith after only 23 minutes, in what would be his last appearance for the club.
Then just before half-time, Sunderland were awarded a free-kick in front of the Main Stand paddock as we attacked the Roker End. As the ball came in from Atkinson with his right foot, Martin Smith flicked the ball on only to see a defender head the ball straight back at him, and with a pause smashed the ball with his left foot straight into the bottom corner.
Sheer relief for the 16,874 who had braved the wind and the rain to witness a goal that Peter Reid has described on numerous occasions as one of the most important in his managerial career. Sunderland hung on with a few nail-biting moments where Tony Norman had to be at his best and the final whistle arrived to give Sunderland all three points.
With two draws in the remaining two games, we stayed up via a six-point gap in the end, but in a game that was a battle in the typical Roker Park conditions where it was always likely to take a single goal to claim victory, Martin Smith was that man with a moment of magic that led to survival - and then everything that followed under the management of Peter Reid.
Sunderland: Norman, Kubicki, Melville, Ord (A. Smith), Scott, Michael Gray, Atkinson, Martin Gray, M. Smith, Angell, P. Gray Substitutes not used: Preece, Russell
Swindon Town: Digby, Robinson, Todd (Hamon), Viveash, Niijholt, Taylor, O’Sullivan (Hooper), Horlock, Gooden, Thorne, Ling Substitutes not used: Hammond