Birthday boy Phil Gray was a popular player throughout his time on Wearside, but he could have very easily made a name for himself in the capital instead.
Having made his senior debut for Tottenham Hotspur in 1987 after coming up through the ranks there, in 1993 ‘Tippy’ (a nickname based on his initials PG) was heavily linked with a move to Chelsea.
By this stage making a name for himself at Luton Town, a news story on Teletext even went as far as reporting that a switch to Stamford Bridge had been completed only for Hatters boss David Pleat to pull the plug at the very last minute.
It was a decision that left Gray feeling extremely frustrated and come the summer several more clubs were looking to make the most of his desire to leave. One of those were said to be West Ham United, but in the end he opted to travel in the opposite direction and come to Terry Butcher’s Sunderland – a £775,000 fee securing the deal.
Once the victim of a hit and run incident whilst a teenager that had left him unable to play football for over a year, shortly after arriving at Roker Gray was involved in another traffic collision, this time as a passenger, that saw him missing the beginning of 1993-94.
Come September though he was flying – having already made his Northern Ireland debut whilst with Luton he opened his international account against Latvia at the start of the month, and less than a fortnight later got his first goal in Sunderland colours.
It came in an impressive Coca-Cola Cup victory over Leeds United and was followed up with another strike in the second leg at Elland Road. The 4-2 aggregate victory was a rare highlight during the final days of Butcher’s reign however, and whilst results picked up under his successor Mick Buxton the entertainment factor was often felt to be low.
Gray’s ‘G-force revisited’ combo up top with Don Goodman was often a cause for hope though and the pair both reached double figures that season even when the Lads were lowest scorers in the top half of Division One, Gray edging his partner with 17 goals to 14.
Born in Belfast, five of Gray’s six efforts for Norn Iron came whilst he was playing his club football for the Rokerites - for whom the goals also continued.
Top scorer again in 1994-95, he also weighed in with some important strikes during the early stages of the subsequent promotion season under Peter Reid until injuries and a contract dispute meant he missed the run in.
These included a beautiful lob back at Kenilworth Road, a timely brace against Sheffield United and an FA Cup opener in front of the Fulwell End against Manchester United that sparked pandemonium on the terraces.
The goal past Peter Schmeichel was typical of Gray’s ability to find space in the box, but he was also good at playing the deeper link man and could spin his marker.
His final effort for Sunderland, a memorable long range punt at Grimsby Town, helped show the wide range of his finishing abilities but after leaving come the end of the campaign fans never got to see if he could have made an impact in the Premiership.
They were always pleased he’d picked the club over London earlier in the decade mind, enjoying seeing him provide a spark on many occasions prior to embarking on a varied career that included stints on the continent. All the best Phil!
Born: Belfast, 2 October 1968
Notts County 1 (Lund 82)
Endsleigh League Division One, Meadow Lane 28 August 1993
Final SAFC appearance:
Birmingham City 0
Sunderland 2 (Agnew 16, Melville 65)
Endsleigh League Division One, St. Andrews 17 March 1996
Total appearances/goals for SAFC:
127(+ 7 as sub)/41