When Mick Buxton took over from Terry Butcher towards the end of November 1993, it would be an understatement to say we were in a mess.
The whole saga of the end of Butcher’s reign coincided with chairman Bob Murray also stepping down with John Featherstone replacing him, which also prompted a plea for local businessmen to invest in the club. So, it’s fair to say Mick Buxton had a job on his hands.
In Endsleigh League Division One, we found ourselves one place above the relegation zone on the back of five straight defeats, but despite all of this, Buxton made us difficult to beat to the point where we flirted with the play-offs and finished in a respectable 12th.
Ahead of his first full season in charge in 1994-95, the financial restraints on the club were clear to see, as no new signings joined in the summer and we went into the season with the same squad as the previous year - and we got off to a decent start. By the end of October we were sitting in 8th, with hopes that we could kick on and make a push for the play-offs.
But as winter arrived, the wheels began to come off and before the end of 1994, we went on a run of two wins in twelve, as we dropped like a stone towards the drop zone. To increase the pressure even further, 1995 began with a visit to Roker from Division Three leaders Carlisle United in the FA Cup third round.
Bizarrely, Carlisle were our opponents at Roker Park in the FA Cup third round the previous season, and even in the midst of a revival following the change of manager, we could only draw at Roker Park and scrape through at Brunton Park in the replay with a goal from Lee Howey in extra-time.
This time around Sunderland were once again in a slump, and Mick Wadsworth’s Carlisle were an impressive twelve points clear of second placed Walsall in the Third Division, so they fancied their chances in front of an estimated 3,500 travelling fans from Cumbria that took up all three sections in the Roker End.
The travelling contingent were a concern for the local constabulary as it was reported that many had bought tickets for the home ends due to the away allocation selling out and our fans waning enthusiasm, due to the current run of form and our chances of success in the tie.
Ahead of the game, there was concern over Sunderland’s main threat in terms of creativity, as Martin Smith was suffering from flu, and was so unwell that he threw up following the pre-game warm up and again only moments before kick-off.
With the game underway, it was a fairly even first half, with the wind blowing as it always seemed to at Roker Park, and the game had a feeling of a fast and furious traditional cup-tie.
Alec Chamberlain made a host of saves in the first half, with Sunderland having a Craig Russell header cleared off the line and forced a good save from Tony Caig in the Carlisle goal.
But it was in the second half, as the winter night closed in with the temperature dropping and the floodlights coming on that the tie exploded into life.
Just two minutes after the break, Dariusz Kubicki scuffed a low ball into the box that found Phil Gray, who helped the ball on towards goal and found Craig Russell, who slotted home from a few yards out in front of a much-relieved Fulwell End.
After we took the lead however, it was all one-way traffic, and Carlisle piled on the pressure looking for an equaliser. David Currie poked the ball wide after going clean through with only Chamberlain to beat, but thankfully for the striker the offside flag spared his blushes, but this only served as a warning.
With just twelve minutes remaining, Currie once again ran at the Sunderland defence, but this time slid the ball in behind into the path of Simon Davey, who smashed the ball into the top corner of the net in front of the Carlisle fans behind the goal at the Roker End to bring the Cumbrians level.
With five minutes to go, it could have been worse, as Richard Prokas cut inside from the right, just inside the area, and with his left foot curled a shot that was heading for the same top corner that Simon Davey had found, until the outstretched hand of Alec Chamberlain came to our rescue to impressively tip over the bar.
After the final whistle went, a chorus of boos were sent down from the Sunderland fans, and a number hurled abuse at the players at the tunnel entrance as the players trudged off the pitch, as it was described in the Journal:
The fury, the hate and the bile of these supporters had to be seen to be believed. Sunderland captain Kevin Ball threw them what can be best described as a brief, meaningful glance and nobody could blame him for that.
And for a second season in a row, we headed to Brunton Park in an attempt to progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Saturday 7th January, 1995
FA Cup 3rd Round
Sunderland 1-1 Carlisle United
[Russell 47’ - Davey 78’]
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Bennett, Ball, Scott, Smith, Atkinson (Michael Gray), Ferguson, Armstrong, Russell, Phil Gray Substitutes not used: Norman, Howey
Carlisle United: Caig, Edmondson, Gallimore, Walling, Mountfield, Conway, Thomas, Davey, Reeves, Currie, Prokas Substitutes not used: Elliott, Robinson, Thorpe