In typical Sunderland fashion, the day before had begun with a huge dollop of misplaced optimism. While an away trip to promotion-chasing Barnsley may not have seemed cause for buoyancy, two new signings to boost the Roker ranks certainly were.
With Sunderland hovering perilously above the relegation zone, Buxton had moved to strengthen the attack, paying a handsome £650,000 to Everton for striker Brett Angell, and securing the signature of highly-rated Liverpool wide man Dominic Matteo.
The new signings were supposed to make the difference – and on a windy night at Oakwell may have done so had Angell’s early header not been disallowed by an overzealous referee, who insisted Dariusz Kubicki’s throw in had gone straight in, rather than receive the slight touch Angell claimed.
It set the tone for the evening, Mick Buxton’s future, and Brett Angell’s Sunderland career, truth be told.
While Matteo showed up well on the left flank, it was of little consequence as Sunderland went down 2-0, with goals from northeasterner Malcolm Shotton, and Andy Payton – a perennial target of Denis Smith a couple of years earlier.
And, so, with that optimism cruelly shattered, Sunderland only two points above the drop zone having now played three games more than Swindon and Bristol City, who were level on 40 points, Mick Buxton’s position at the club was under serious threat.
The newspaper reports 27 years ago today declared Sunderland’s first choice to replace Buxton was Brian Horton, the Manchester City manager.
It seems strange now, given that City were in the top flight at the time, that we’d be targeting their manager. But the gap between first division – in terms of finances, prestige and standard – was relatively insignificant at the time, certainly not the ‘Premier League or nothing’ mentality that exists today.
In The Journal, Tim Taylor wrote:
Battle-hardened to the demand of a football hotbed from his current spell at Maine Road, Horton is well thought of in the football industry.
Given Sunderland’s current low status compared to neighbours Newcastle United, working in the shadow of Manchester United has given the former Oxford boss an insight into the demands made by intense local rivalry.
The speculation was that Horton could be in the Roker Park dugout for the following Saturday’s game against Sheffield United, but – of course – it ended up being another manager with Manchester City connections, Peter Reid, who was introduced to the Roker crowd seven days later.
The game against Barnsley turned out to be Matteo’s only appearance for Sunderland – and an illegal one at that. While appointing Reid as manager ultimately staved off relegation, the FA’s decision not to dock Sunderland points for fielding an illegible player (his paperwork hadn’t been correctly lodged) turned out in many respects to be equally important.