Today, Sunderland play Morecambe, with a playoff position - and a chance at promotion - yet to be secured. Final-day drama is nothing new to Sunderland, and so the 1993-1994 season was something of a rarity, therefore, as it ended with the Lads in a position of comfort.
Following his appointment as manager, Mick Buxton had turned the team’s form around, and a four-game winning streak in March had all but ended any lingering worries of relegation.
Unfortunately, Buxton’s were unable to maintain any real consistency thereafter, and after throwing away a two-goal lead against a struggling Oxford United side, there were suggestions from some fans that one or two of the players were now ‘on the beach’.
The visit of Tranmere Rovers to Roker Park four days later gave the side an opportunity to set the record straight, and although it looked for a while as if they were going to let the points slip again, a determined showing in the second half proved to the doubters that Sunderland were not putting their feet up just yet.
Phil Gray had scored within three minutes of kickoff against Oxford but remarkably, the start made by the Rokerites against John King’s side was even better.
Once again, Gray opened the scoring, this time after only 75 seconds, sweeping in Craig Russell’s inswinging free kick following a foul on Martin Smith. The Son of Pele was substituted after the incident, but by the time his replacement, Lee Howey, was on the pitch, it was 2-0, after Russell latched onto Derek Ferguson’s through ball and beat Eric Nixon with a tidy finish.
Tranmere’s defence had looked decidedly flat-footed all game, but they could do little about Gray’s second of the afternoon, and Sunderland’s top league scorer soon ensured that the scoreline became even more emphatic.
After controlling a Gordon Armstrong pass, Gray flicked the ball over John McGreal, and smashed a volley past Nixon for a stunning third goal. Carefree and three goals to the good, the Lads were now flying and could have easily extended their lead before the break.
However, this encounter proved very much the proverbial game of two halves, and it was Tranmere that posed a greater threat after the resumption of play.
They got back into the game when Pat Nevin and John Aldridge combined to set up Ian Muir, and although Nixon then denied Gray a hat-trick with a superb save, the visitors reduced the deficit further, when Aldridge scored his 28th goal of the campaign.
With Tranmere eager to secure a playoff spot, they laid siege to Tony Norman’s goal during the final thirty minutes.
Although he had kept a clean sheet against the same opposition in an early Anglo-Italian Cup game, Norman was making his first league appearance of the season, and he had to be on his toes throughout.
Having been in such a comfortable position early on, Sunderland were now under extreme pressure, but with Kevin Ball leading by example and making several fine blocks, they were able to hold on, and the side dug in and ground it out, as opposed to digging sandcastles.
This was the final home game of the season, and after two away draws to complete the campaign, Buxton’s men finished a mere six points shy of the playoffs.
A year earlier, the club had been in grave danger of relegation and stayed up by the skin of their teeth. By this stage, supporters were just happy to see things heading in the right direction, and for once, they could look forward to a stress-free summer holiday of their own.
Saturday 30 April 1994, Roker Park
Football League Division One
Sunderland 3 (Gray 1, 22, Russell 3)
Tranmere Rovers 2 (Muir 46, Aldridge 54)
Sunderland: Norman, Kubicki, Ball; Melville, M.Gray, Smith (Howey 4), Ferguson; Atkinson, Armstrong (M.Gray 76); P Gray, Russell. Substitutes: Chamberlain.