The Terry Butcher era at Sunderland is not looked back on favourably, but there was a brief period shortly before his departure in which things had been starting to look up.
Under him the team had limped over the line in their 1992-93 battle against the drop, and whilst another relegation scrap seemed on the cards when he was hooked in November 1993 it is easy to forget that the Lads had put a decent run of results together just a few weeks before.
Having lost once in their last eight fixtures, Sunderland were in a confident mood when they welcomed Keith Burkinshaw’s West Bromwich Albion to Roker Park on this day.
They started the game on the front foot too, with young winger Martin Smith forcing a brilliant save from Tony Lange that denied him what would have been a second goal in two appearances.
Smith had enjoyed a sensational first team bow against Luton Town earlier in the week in which both he and fellow winger Jamie Lawrence had been flying, Lawrence himself having only just come into the side for his senior debut at Middlesbrough three days prior.
What the pair lacked in experience though they made up for in energy, and whilst Lawrence, who had turned professional less than a fortnight earlier, understandably began to tire against the Baggies the duo were keen to stretch the opposition as much as possible.
Whilst Smith was unable to score himself, he did have the satisfaction of creating the only goal of the afternoon, curling in a lovely free kick for fellow youth product Richard Ord to plant firmly into the corner.
Both players had grown up supporting the club they were now playing for and following his superb header Ord tore off towards the Main Stand in wild celebration. It was a nice moment for the Murton defender who was enjoying his own good run of form, despite having been in the wars over recent games.
Returning to the side against West Brom having missed out against Luton due to concussion, Ord had been handed the Man of the Match award in early October when he starred in a narrow win against Birmingham City.
That occasion is best remembered for the infamous ‘rowing’ undertaken by John Kay as he was stretched off with a broken leg, and whilst both he and Martin Gray had to undergo operations that evening due to the injuries they sustained during it, Ord too was noticeably battered and bruised when he appeared in the executive lounges to collect his prize.
Displaying several facial cuts and bruises when meeting the sponsors that even his manager would have been proud off, worse was to follow when he was taken off against Middlesbrough after a nasty collision.
Butcher was no stranger to head clashes himself, but amidst a mini injury crisis he would have been grateful for Ord making himself available again so quickly – even though the medical advice these days would usually indicate a longer lay off. Nevertheless, it took care of the left back slot and meant the boss could concentrate on other matters.
His main headache on the day of the match came when Lee Howey reported to the ground with flu and had to be sent back home.
After coming into the side following a suspension for Phil Gray, Howey scored the winner against Birmingham and was expected to retain his place despite Gray becoming eligible again; not only did his illness mean a late change to the starting XI though, but it also robbed Butcher of one of his more versatile squad members.
The boss’s options were already restricted considering Kay and Martin Gray’s continued absence, which had seen the ever-adaptable Gary Owers being reassigned to right back duties.
Like his good pal Ord, Owers was always happy to put the team first and would do a job no matter where he was on the pitch and having started in defence against Albion he was moved once more following the shuffle that came about following Lawrence’s second half withdrawal.
The winning goal came moments after the substitution, and replacement Gordon Armstrong went desperately close to creating a second when he put a lovely ball through to Don Goodman.
A two goal cushion would have been handy, as having spent most of the time looking to spoil West Brom suddenly sensed an opportunity and sprung into life in added time.
Andy Hunt, Lee Ashcroft and Kieron O’Regan forced a trio of fantastic last gasp stops from Alec Chamberlain, meaning Sunderland had to suddenly start clinging on to secure the points that took them to their best position in the division for over two years.
11th place allowed the Lads to start looking up the table, and with nine home wins out of 11 in all competitions the club were now optimistic ahead of the highly anticipated Coca-Cola Cup tie against Aston Villa that was coming up three days later.
Things certainly appeared to be taking shape for Butcher and it would have seemed remarkable at that stage to suggest that he’d be gone within a month, yet Sunderland somehow managed to get knocked out even though they played very well, and the defeat kicked off a staggering collapse.
Five more consecutive losses soon followed that would eventually lead to the sack, the win over West Brom 29 years ago today proving to be the last of the Butcher reign.
Saturday 23 October 1993
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 1 (Ord 59)
West Bromwich Albion 0
Sunderland: Chamberlain; Owers, Ball, Melville, Ord (Mi Gray); Lawrence (Armstrong 57), Ferguson, Atkinson, Smith; Goodman, P Gray. Unused: Norman.
Roker Park, attendance 19, 505