On the 23rd October 1991, Denis Smith finally ended a three-year chase to sign Republic of Ireland international John Byrne.
The 30-year-old signed a two-and-a-half year contract to link up with Denis Smith for a second time when he joined from Brighton and Hove Albion to play on what Byrne described as “a big stage”:
It’s a big club. I have always wanted to play on a big stage. I know Denis Smith and Viv Busby from my York City days and I am sure they are capable of getting Sunderland back into the First Division.
I have played for QPR but I would always say that Sunderland are a bigger club. This is probably the fourth time Denis Smith has tried to sign me. I always had a feeling that sooner or later I would be playing for him.
When Barry Lloyd (Brighton’s manager) told me about Sunderland’s interest after playing for Brighton up here, I was hoping it would go through.
Sealing the signature of Byrne was a necessity as it came around a month after Marco Gabbiadini’s move to Crystal Palace, which meant Denis Smith had the best part of £1.8 million from the sale burning a hole in his pocket, with a squad that was in desperate need of freshening up.
Smith had managed Byrne as a youngster at York City in his first managerial post and improved him to such an extent that he made a £100,000 move to QPR. It wasn’t the first time that the Sunderland manager had attempted to bring Byrne to Roker and Smith described his chase to seal the deal following our promotion to Division One in the summer of 1990 on the Roker Rapport podcast, which you can take a listen to here.
On Saturday 26th October 1991, John Byrne finally made his debut for the Lads at Roker against Bristol Rovers, with Denis Smith’s side languishing in 17th position in the table going into our fourteenth game back in the Second Division following relegation.
Three weeks prior, Byrne had been on the scoresheet at Roker for Brighton as he opened the scoring in what turned out to be a 4-2 win for Sunderland. Against Bristol Rovers however, he wasn’t able to repeat the feat and it was Gary Bennett who equalised in a 1-1 draw.
Byrne’s first goals came a week later when he bagged two past David James and Watford at Roker in a game that saw a young Craig Russell make his debut for Sunderland. Despite this win, and the further additions of Anton Rogan and Don Goodman, our league form didn’t improve and twelve games into John Byrne’s Sunderland career, the man who had coveted his signature for so long, was gone.
After a 3-0 defeat at Brian Horton’s Oxford United on the 28th December, Denis Smith was sacked, with Malcolm Crosby taking over as caretaker manager for our New Year’s Day fixture at home to Barnsley that was the beginning of a run of four straight victories.
In those four successive wins was a 3-0 victory over Port Vale in the third round of the FA Cup, where Byrne bagged the third goal with just less than twenty minutes left on the clock after Brian Atkinson and Peter Davenport had established our commanding position.
A month later, we travelled to Oxford United in the fourth round and this time it was Byrne who opened the scoring after only three minutes in what turned out to be a nervy 3-2 win for the Lads after we’d taken a three-goal lead.
Things were beginning to get interesting and our fifth round home tie against Billy Bonds West Ham United was selected for live TV coverage, and on this occasion, Byrne equalised with just over an hour gone with a goal that could be described as wind assisted.
Byrne added two more goals in the replay as we left the capital with 3-2 win that was largely down to an inspired performance by Tony Norman between the sticks. Things started to get serious as Sky TV selected our quarter-final against Chelsea for it’s coverage of the round. The fact that Sunderland FA Cup hero, Ian Porterfield, was now the manager of the Blues which gave the tie an extra edge.
Byrne saved the day at Stamford Bridge with a header to level things up after Clive Allen had put Chelsea ahead in the first half. As we won the replay with that Gordon Armstrong header, our league form was suffering as our cup form was prospering. After taking us back up to 11th in the table where thoughts of potential play-off finishes were perhaps back on the table, we had now dropped down to 18th and began to look over our shoulders.
In the semi-final draw, we had thankfully missed Liverpool, but had also missed out on their Second Division opponents Portsmouth, so faced Norwich City in what would be the first semi-final to be hosted at Hillsborough since the disaster during the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest semi-final tie three years prior to our fixture.
The moment came in the 34th minute when a long ball forward was held up by Byrne and laid off to David Rush on the right flank. Rush drove with the ball in field and reversed the ball back behind the Norwich City back line into the path of Brian Atkinson who had made a run in behind.
With one touch, Atkinson placed the ball right onto the head of Byrne in the middle of the six-yard box to give him the easiest of finishes to put Sunderland through to the 1992 FA Cup final to take on Liverpool.
The final didn’t turn out the way we’d have liked, with Liverpool dominating for large periods and winning 2-0, although we did have our chances in the first half, and you can hear John Byrne talk about that, plus his time at Sunderland in general when we spoke to him on the Roker Rapport podcast which you can listen to here.
Fast forward to October 24th 1992, a year and a day since he signed from Brighton, Byrne was off to Millwall with Mick McCarthy willing to pay £275,000 for the striker.
Since the FA Cup final it had not gone to plan and in a recent game against Bristol Rovers, who Byrne had made his debut against the previous year, he was on the wrong end of the fans attention and manager Malcolm Crosby was brief in his assessment of the move:
I am disappointed that he does not want to stop here but I only want players who are committed to the cause.