The summer of 1987 was a crossroads in the history of Sunderland Association Football Club as we hit a new low for the club in our 108-year history up to that point.
Lawrie McMenemy’s final season in charge coincided with a change of chairman for the club when local businessman Sir Bob Murray took the reigns from Sir Tom Cowie, and the 40-year-old Murray was in for a baptism of fire as the new man in charge.
The outgoing chairman had left the club in the lurch with battles in the boardroom still not fully resolved, a manager who was struggling to salvage our status as a Second Division club and who was on a princely wage for ultimately failing.
There was speculation surrounding McMenemy’s departure following a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United in the middle of April 1987, and whether it was instigated by the manager quitting his post or the new, young chairman taking decisive action, the bottom line was that he was gone, and we required a miracle to avoid relegation.
This was Murray’s first major decision as the man in charge at Roker, and realising he needed that miracle, he went out and brought in a man who was no stranger to producing miracles in the form of 1973 FA Cup winning manager Bob Stokoe.
Stokoe had seven fixtures to retain our place in Division Two, but two wins and two draws was only enough to provide a second opportunity in the promotion/relegation play-offs, after we threw away a two-goal lead on the final day against Barnsley at Roker Park.
In typical Sunderland fashion, we dropped to the third tier of English football in those play-offs against Gillingham - on away goals.
We had been a football club for 108 years and throughout that whole time this was the lowest the club had fallen, and with Bob Stokoe deciding early he would end his second spell as manager of the club when our fate was decided at the end of the season, Bob Murray had a huge decision as to to who would be the man to get Sunderland out of Division Three at the first attempt.
Get this appointment wrong and the clubs financial problems would be laid bare as we would languish in the lower half of the Football League for years to come, but get it right and who knows where the momentum could take the club.
Thirteen days after Sunderland’s second-leg play-off game against Gillingham, it was confirmed that Bob Murray had reached a deal with York City to make Denis Smith the new manager at Roker Park.
The 39-year-old former Stoke City defender had been the man in charge at Bootham Cresent for five years where, together with assistant Viv Busby who was also taking up the same role with Sunderland, had taken York City from the lower reaches of Division Four into a side pushing for promotion in Division Three.
Whilst in charge at York City, they became the first club in English football to finish a season with over 100 points and produced famous moments in the FA Cup against the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool that propelled York City back onto the football map.
The sticking point that delayed the deal was a compensation package that York City chairman Michael Sinclair had demanded for the management duo to move to Wearside in an era where clubs rarely paid fees to attract new managers from club to club.
Eventually a £20,000 compensation package was agreed, and as Smith described on the Roker Rapport podcast, he was required to step in to save the deal as he told Bob Murray he would pay the compensation out of his own pocket if he failed to achieve promotion in his first season.
It was almost two years to the day since Lawrie McMenemy was given the reigns at Roker and Smith was quick to confirm how ambitious he was and his reasons for taking on the task of turning Sunderland around:
I am ambitious. I want to manage a First Division team and that is why I am coming to Roker Park. I am not chasing money or good contracts. I want success and I want it immediately. I want my team to give the supporters something to be proud of.
I rate Sunderland among the top ten clubs in the country, in terms of potential. It is a hotbed of soccer, so how could I turn down the offer? It is the sort of challenge I could not refuse.
My only regret is that I was not given the chance last season to keep Sunderland up.
As the appointment was confirmed, Bob Murray also discussed the current financial situation at the club as he confirmed a meeting with the Bank manager 48 hours after relegation to the Third Division was confirmed, where he secured the financial future of the club.
Directly and indirectly, we had between 90 and 100 applicants for the job, but Denis and Viv Busby were always my number one team. They had been on holiday and I was waiting for them to return. He reminds me of his best friend Howard Kendall and let’s face it, everyone has to start somewhere.
Everything is geared for success. We have cut costs and all necessary financial arrangements are now in place. We have no financial worries at this club. Money won’t come up again.