On this day 35 years ago, Sunderland were determined to do things differently ahead of the new season, which was due to kick off in five days time.
The club, of course, had had a poor season in Division Two the season before.
After relegation from the top flight and the appointment of the country’s most expensive manager in Lawrie McMenemy, supporters had been expecting a challenge at the top end of the table. Instead, a raft of older players failed to gel, and Sunderland finished in 18th place, four points above the drop zone.
In fact, poor is an understatement.
It was the club’s worst-ever league finish.
Goalkeeper Iain Hesford and striker Dave Buchanan were the only preseason arrivals at the club, and in order to boost transfer coffers, the club turned to its hardcore fans to stick their hands in their pockets.
The subtly titled ‘Roker Revival’ club was launched in grandiose style at the town’s Empire Theatre, with 2500 supporters – each paying £2 per week – given an exclusive audience with McMenemy, who wasted no time in blowing smoke up arses, despite stressing that was not, in fact, what he was doing.
You are the hardcore of the best supporters in the lad, and I say that not to butter anyone up, but on the evidence of last season.
If ever a club belonged to the people, then it’s Sunderland.
It’s different at most other places, but up here people make it their life.
The scheme would raise £250,000 each year, and offered cash prizes, holidays and cars – as well as a ‘multitude’ of (unspecified) personal benefits.
It was the dawn of a new season, of course, so optimism was renewed. The previous season was merely a blip, McMenemy had stumbled but his talent would prevail, we convinced ourselves.
That was McMenemy’s line too, despite us scoring only five goals in seven pre-season games. To be fair, we’d only conceded four: two wins, four draws and a single loss at the hands of Derry City. He was convinced that the issues that had plagued the club behind the scenes over the past year had been resolved.
In a strange ramble, reported by the Journal, he said:
I’m a little bit tired and weary of people telling me last season was the worst ever in the history of the club.
If that is purely on a football basis, then I will have to accept it, but people are wrong, really.
It’s not about finishing fifth bottom or fifth top, it’s a question of how deep it goes at the club. It’s a question of how much everyone is on the right lines and now we are.
There’s a tradition in the north eas of self-destruction, of pulling people apart.
Our situation was never that bad.
It was taken out of context by a bad press and by people who should have known better. But all the directors have now seen common sense, and we have peace.
Now we have to get our credibility back as a club.
This club must no longer be looked on as a joke.
I didn’t come here to make money, not did I come here for ego. I came to apply my 15 years of method and to get success on the field.
You can have a go and say what about the players I have let go. But if they had been good enough they would have still been here and we would have been in the First Division.
The likes of Barry Venison, Bob Bolder, Howard Gayle, Dave Hodgson and Clive Walker had all played for Sunderland in the 1985-86 season, and had departed for pastures new, while the transfer of Shaun Elliott to Norwich was on the verge of competition. The stumbling block from Elliott’s perspective was a lack of testimonial – which, after 12 years at the club, he rightly believed he was due.
Former England winger Mark Barham was rumoured to be travelling in the opposite direction. Barham, who was part of the City team that beat Sunderland in the 85 Milk Cup Final had been up for talks and was keen to play his part in a ‘big push to get back into the First Division.”
While Elliott did move to Norwich – and never got a testimonial at Sunderland – Barham instead signed for Mick Buxton’s Huddersfield.
It was the Terriers who provided the opposition as Sunderland opened the campaign up at Leeds Road, and it looked as though things might be different after all. Two goals in three minutes, from Frank Gray and Dave Swindlehurst, gave the lads all three points, and by the end of October the club sat in fifth place in the table.
A spectacular fall from grace happened of course – one win in 10 say the club slide down the table, and one point in six games in March saw McMenemy disappear and Sunderland record a second consecutive ‘worst ever season’.
This time, however, it came with significantly more consequences.
Roker Revival? Unfortunately not.