Sunderland are now looking ahead to their Championship return, and whilst some fans are already thinking the side can push on there are plenty of others that would settle for a mid-table finish as long as there were signs that things were moving in the right direction.
The last time that happened in the second tier was nearly 30 years ago, and it came under the stewardship of Mick Buxton – a Fulwell End regular growing up who went on to have a long career in the game before returning to the club he loved.
Although from Corbridge originally, he moved to Ryhope with his family whilst still young and began attending Sunderland games in the 1950s.
His performances on the left wing for the Sunderland and County Durham schools teams lead to him being spotted by Burnley’s famous North East scouting network, and whilst at Turf Moor he was converted into a full back and played for future Roker boss Jimmy Adamson.
A foot problem led to him struggling to get first team games in Lancashire, but after moving to Halifax Town he suffered further injury woes. It was a case of all hands to the pumps for the cash strapped Shaymen, and with Buxton twice suffering broken legs he undertook a series of behind the scenes roles as well as becoming a coach.
He soon began earning a reputation for being able to improve players despite working with limited resources, and after holding different positions at Southend United, Watford, Barnsley and Mansfield Town he moved to Huddersfield Town.
It was here where he got his first managerial appointment, taking over as caretaker boss initially before being made permanent and then guiding the side to the Division Four title in 1979-80. His team scored 101 goals that season and were promoted again in 1983, and whilst his successful stint came to an end three years later Buxton is still highly regarded amongst Terriers fans.
Whilst in charge of Scunthorpe United he saw his side beat Sunderland in the FA Cup in 1987 but upon leaving Glanford Park he returned to coaching with Wimbledon. He also worked for Graham Taylor at international level, monitoring England players and scouting potential U21s call ups, before taking up an offer from Terry Butcher to join his Wearside staff in July 1993.
Although given the title of chief or sometimes head coach, Buxton also oversaw the reserve team at points. His knowledge of the squad therefore and track record of working with the players already at his disposal made him an obvious choice to replace Butcher when he was dismissed four months later, and whilst Buxton felt uneasy about that decision, he was grateful for the chance to take charge of a club that meant so much to him.
It was just as well really, as few other managers would have fancied taking on what at that point was a thankless task. Sunderland were in real danger when Butcher was hooked, the final straw being a 2-0 loss at Roker Park to Southend United that saw them move into the drop zone. An appalling away record had left the side staring relegation square in the face, and with home form now also starting to desert them Bob Murray felt compelled to act.
With the owner looking to instigate an ambitious stadium move it was imperative that Sunderland maintained some semblance of a reputation. Buxton was a steady hand and had been at Scunthorpe when they too moved grounds, and under him the Lads saw a swift improvement - after originally being appointed until the end of the season, results saw his deal extended ahead of schedule and the campaign finished with that mid-table berth as things started to feel a little more optimistic.
The 1994-95 season began with the club’s longest unbeaten league start since 1910-11, but six draws out of eight did little to quell the murmurings about Buxton becoming a little too cautious in his approach.
After an encouraging start to his tenure, positivity started to dry up and after an infamous night in Barnsley in February 1995 his fate was sealed. A 2-0 defeat meant the side were stuck exactly where they had been at the start of his reign and so Murray decided to look for some external impetus. Along came Peter Reid, and the rest was history.
Although Sunderland lost six of his last eight games, Buxton did leave the nucleus of what proved to be a squad capable of winning promotion. With funds being side-lined ready for the ground move he was restricted in what he could do in terms of transfers, but three of his buys, Darisuz Kubicki, Martin Scott and Steve Agnew did all have a part to play under Reid. The same could not be said for Brett Angell though, who made his debut in Buxton’s last game and had a goal contentiously ruled off.
Things may have been different had Angell’s delight been allowed to stand. As it was, the night went from bad to worse for supporters forced to stay in the eye of a windstorm and with builders sand from ongoing ground renovations at Oakwell whipping into their faces.
Angell was not the only debutant, but when it was later found that Dominic Matteo’s registration had not been completed correctly the general air of malaise at the club seemed apparent. It was another final straw.
A repeat of that heartening midtable spot was obviously not to be. Buxton had at least brought hope of better times in his first year or so however, and whilst the football was at times said to be bland, the side was always organised, and although never a rabble-rouser his unassuming character and desire to get the basics right were admirable traits that are usually welcomed by the Sunderland crowd of which he used to be a part.
His knowledge of the game and vast experience of coaching later saw him working for the Premier League, and as he celebrates his birthday today Roker Report would like to wish Mick all the best - not many Sunderland fans get to act out their dreams about manage the club, after all…
Corbridge, 29 May 1943
First game in charge of SAFC:
Sunderland 2 (P Gray 11, Smith 54)
Nottingham Forest 3 (Gemmill 17, Collymore 37, 79)
Endsleigh League Division One: Roker Park, 27 November 1993
Final game in charge of SAFC:
Barnsley 2 (Shotton 66, Payton 85)
Endsleigh League Division One: Oakwell, 24 March 1995
Stats whilst in charge of SAFC:
Won 25, Drawn 24, Lost 27 (76 games in total)