After taking over at Sunderland in March, Len Ashurst had kept Sunderland up by the skin of our teeth. His controversial appointment – controversial in the sense of both his predecessor Alan Durban’s departure, and his lack of top-flight managerial experience (compounded by a relative lack of even second division managerial experience) – had prompted some dissension in the ranks.
Paul Bracewell, Lee Chapman and Ian Atkins were just three of the players who departed after the end of the season – and Bracewell and Chapman, according to Ashurst's autobiography, had to be coerced into playing the critical, final day game of the season – a win at Leicester – which secured Sunderland’s survival. The final position of 13th (in a 22-team league) was rather flattering.
Ashurst recalled in ‘Left Back in Time’, which incidentally is well worth a read:
I’d become aware that Everton, who at the time were a top First Division club and won the FA Cup that season, had set their sights on a couple of my better players. The situation had been simmering for a couple of weeks and came to a head on the Friday morning before that vital last game of the season when both Paul Bracewell and Lee Chapman came to see me. They both wanted a transfer and intimated they were not fussed about playing at Leicester the following day, despite the fact that I had named them in my starting line up. Both intimated that they did not want to be at the club the following season. With the team bus leaving within the hour I had to respond quickly.
What was paramount was Sunderland’s First Division survival; next season could look after itself. Thinking on my feet I fave them an ultimatum, “win at Leicester tomorrow and you will be at another club for the start of next season.”
Both were magnificent the next day...
I found it incredible that two footballers had acted in such a way the day before a crucial relegation match.
Atkins and Bracewell ended up at Everton, and Ashurst wasted no time in shaking things up. Over the course of the summer moved out a total of 10 players, replacing them with the likes of Gary Bennett, Howard Gayle, Steve Berry, Clive Walker, David Hodgson, Roger Wylde and Peter Daniel.
Two players who were linked with the club on this day 37 years ago, however, didn’t end up signing that summer – although one did have a loan spell at Roker Park a couple of seasons later.
First up was Sheffield Wednesday striker Gary Bannister, who had turned down a new contract and was available for a reported £300,000. Sheffield Wednesday were scouting around for another striker, making Bannister’s position at the club a bit uncertain, and the arrival of Lee Chapman a few weeks later.
24-year-old Bannister had netted 55 in 118 games for Wednesday, who had just been promoted back to the top flight. His second division goalscoring exploits had attracted attention but, despite Sunderland’s interest, the Lancashire-born player headed south, not north, and signed on the dotted line for new QPR manager Jim Smith. The diminutive striker would have been a great signing – he maintained his scoring exploits at Loftus Road, netting 56 in 136 top-flight games.
Another player linked was Cardiff’s young keeper Andy Dibble. The 19-year-old had already made 62 first-team appearances for Ashurst's former team – and clubs were circling. Dibble was expected to join Watford for £150,000 at this point, but he ended up at David Pleat’s top-flight Luton. As an aside, he only played 30 games for Luton in his four years there – surprising, as my recollection is of him as a Luton regular during the mid-late 80s.
Of course, Dibble had a very successful loan spell at Roker Park a couple of seasons later, playing 12 games in our ill-fated 86-87 campaign.
Of course, all of the wheeling and dealing was to little end: despite reaching the Milk Cup final, we were relegated from the top flight at the end of the season, few of Ashurst’s signings coming close to replacing the quality of player he’d moved out.