New caretaker manager Mick Buxton took charge of his first Sunderland game 29 years ago today, and whilst he would eventually steer them away from relegation trouble his maiden outing was to be spoilt by a familiar foe.
After seeing their side being promoted into the topflight at the start of the decade and then reach the 1992 FA Cup final Sunderland fans had since been forced to endure some wretched results. Chief amongst them was the visit of Southend United towards the end of 1992-93 in which forward Stan Collymore tore them apart, and now he was back at Roker Park with his latest club Nottingham Forest.
The big money buy was the talk of the division, although his former club had returned to Wearside seven days earlier and prompted another topic of conversation – their victory bringing an end to Terry Butcher’s reign at Sunderland as he was replaced by his coach Buxton. Forest boss Frank Clark had also worked on the Roker staff earlier in his career and so knew that the shakeup could energise their hosts, but whether that message initially got through to his star striker and his teammates is open to debate.
Keen to impress the new boss and backed by a resurgent crowd, Sunderland were at it in the opening stages and took the lead following some neat work down their left-hand side. The ball was played invitingly by Richard Ord across the six-yard box, where Phil Gray was lurking to turn it in with the outside of his boot. At that point the visitors didn’t quite know what had hit them, but they quickly recalibrated and soon found themselves level through the simplest of goals.
Forest had been forced to withdraw goalkeeper Tommy Wright after he became concussed shortly after the opener, but at the other end they had no problems – Scott Gemmill finding acres of space to nod past Alec Chamberlain. The ease in which the ball had been crossed in and then met by Gemmill will have no doubt infuriated Buxton, yet the second was even more disappointing.
Collymore had run the Lads ragged the last time he was here and was now repeating the trick, collecting possession on the halfway line and steaming in on goal before confidently firing home in front of the Fulwell End. It was reminiscent of what Marco Gabbiadini would do all the time for Sunderland, but now the boot was on the other foot and questions were being asked from the terraces about why he had been afforded so much space.
Fans through were still trying to stay as positive as possible – they knew there was ability within the squad and that it just needed the right man to make the most of it, but Buxton had only taken charge the day before so had not yet had chance to really get down to business. Supporters were encouraged too when Martin Smith equalised ten minutes into the second half with a composed finish after substitute Mark Crossley had parried Don Goodman’s shot.
It was a composed half volley from Smith that could have easily been wasted, but the build up to it will have left Clark just as rueful as his counterpart had been in the first half. Sat in the stands after being sent from the dugout due to an incident with one of the linesmen, he could only watch as a long punt up field caught his side cold and put Goodman through.
Buxton had a reputation for being able to organise and coach sides defensively, and on this evidence, it was certainly needed. Forest’s winner typified the issues Sunderland had been having at the back in recent weeks, when despite seemingly being penned inside their defensive third they were able to break out quickly – Collymore once again taking over before suddenly bearing down on goal and hitting the target.
Things did soon start to pick up under Buxton; the side didn’t lose again until the new year and he was later made permanent manager, but that was only after Collymore had brutally exposed the weaknesses of his new charges.
Saturday 27 November 1993
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 2 (P. Gray, 11, Smith 54)
Nottingham Forest 3 (Gemmill 17, Collymore 37, 79)
Sunderland: Chamberlain; Ma. Gray (Howey 83), Bennett, Melville, Ord; Owers, Ferguson, Cunnington, Smith; P. Gray, Goodman. Unused: Norman, Atkinson.
Roker Park, attendance 16, 968