The period between relegation from the First Division in May 1990 and the appointment of Peter Reid in March 1995 was a pretty dark and miserable time to be following The Lads.
We had a brief respite in 1992 as we reached the final of the FA Cup, but even that was running in parallel with a distinct concern that we’d drop back into the third tier of English football after clambering out at the first time of asking in 1988.
It was made all the more difficult that these years would occur during the same period that just up the road at Newcastle United, Ossie Ardiles had been replaced with Kevin Keegan and Sir John Hall began to spend big.
Following the departure of Denis Smith, we plodded on with three successive managerial appointments from within the club. First, Malcolm Crosby, and he possibly got the job accidentally by virtue of the cup run, which if rumours are to be believed, prevented the appointment of Neil Warnock at the time.
Crosby, in the same way as Denis Smith before him in a lot of respects, wasn’t backed in the transfer market, and didn’t seem to have the backing of the Sunderland board. It was almost like they were waiting for Crosby to fail so they could start again. By that time, however, a ready-made replacement had presented itself, when former Coventry City player-manager Terry Butcher had been brought to the club as a player.
It was through his links with Bobby Ferguson that the ex-Ipswich Town defender had signed for Sunderland. Ferguson was now the assistant manager at Sunderland and had years previously been assistant to Bobby Robson at Ipswich before going on to manage the club himself.
Despite having failed in his first attempt at management with the Sky Blues, it was Butcher who got the nod, and although he took over at the beginning of February as we sat 17th in Barclays Division One, we finished four places worse off and only survived on the last day by virtue of other results going our way.
So, of course, the Sunderland board gave more money to Terry Butcher than any manager in the club's history to rebuild the squad.
Perhaps inevitably, it went wrong. Big signings, car crashes, heavy opening day defeats and a failure to win football matches, meant Butcher was gone days before the first windows of advent calendars were opening in his first full season in charge.
Enter stage left our third internal appointment, Mick Buxton. According to Terry Butcher, Buxton had been brought to the club by chairman Bob Murray to take the role of reserve team manager and had previously managed in the lower leagues with Huddersfield Town and Scunthorpe United from the late-1970’s.
Interestingly, when former players discuss the Northumberland-born manager, they generally speak about him in glowing terms, especially when it comes to his tactical awareness and the preparation ahead of a game. And this showed in the transition between Butcher and Buxton where we not only became more difficult to beat, but we won six of his first nine games in charge, despite taking over after a run of five straight defeats.
It was a sign of the times that even though Buxton was appointed as manager well before the turn of the year, and in the olden days the transfer deadline day was in March, only Dariusz Kubicki was brought into the club to boost the ranks. But despite this, we finished a respectable 12th in Endsleigh League Division One, and nobody really knew what lay ahead... but we could have probably guessed.
In the summer, the club were looking for financial investment, and the outlay given to Terry Butcher, especially without any major sale of a player for significant money since Marco Gabbiadini in late 1991, meant that Buxton would have to do his best with the current squad.
And we didn’t get off to a bad start, but it’s probably a sign of how we were set up, that we drew six of the opening seven games. As we rose to the dizzy heights of 8th in late October, there was potential for a successful season, and it made a change from the last four years of looking over our shoulder.
But after taking a bit of a dip in form, it then became interesting on the transfer front, and maybe predictably, it was triggered by the sale of our biggest asset at the time, Don Goodman. It would be big-spending Wolverhampton Wanderers who eventually made us an offer we couldn’t refuse when they raised the stakes to around £1.4 million, which was the final total after taking some of the add-on clauses into account.
It was almost a carbon copy of 1991, when Denis Smith was forced to sell Marco Gabbiadini in an effort to strengthen the squad, and just as Smith before him, Buxton went to work in an effort to freshen his squad.
Around two weeks later, a deal was sealed that saw full-back Martin Scott arrive at the club, with Gary Owers going in the opposite direction. Over the Christmas period rumours were spreading about who would be next since the Sunderland manager now had a bit of a war-chest to play with.
In early January there was a level of secrecy around a target that Mick Buxton was desperate to get over the line, and on this day in 1995, it was revealed that we had missed out on that number one target, but had softened the blow by confirming the signing of a different player who was on his way to Roker.
Buxton had agreed a fee of around £300,000 with Aston Villa manager Brian Little for former Arsenal and Real Sociedad midfielder Kevin Richardson, but the midfielder had decided to stay and fight for his place in the Villa midfield.
The Newcastle-born midfielder might have been 32-years-old, but had been capped by England manager Terry Venables only a year prior and as Mick Buxton described, it was a blow to miss out:
It’s a deal I’ve been working on since the day Don Goodman left. Kevin has great qualities and would have proved to be an excellent buy. After speaking to Brian Little yesterday and agreeing a fee I thought a deal was on, But Kevin is club captain and has some way to go on his contract. I can understand why he wants to stay though there is still a chance he’ll change his mind.
But, on hearing the decision from Richardson, Buxton was straight onto the phone to former Newcastle striker Mark McGhee, who was now manager of Leicester City, to agree a £250,000 fee for midfielder Steve Agnew.
The Barnsley-born midfielder went on to make 70 appearances for Sunderland and played a major role under Peter Reid in winning the title the following season. He also made eleven starts for the club in the Premier League as we attempted to avoid relegation, before signing for York City in September 1997.