It had been just over five weeks since Sunderland had taken on Liverpool at Wembley to contest the FA Cup final, but already things were looking bleak for the season ahead.
The 1991-92 season had been one of constant peaks and troughs, with a lot of change at the club along the way. It had begun with the aim of firing our way back to the First Division with the combination of Denis Smith as manager and highly-rated Marco Gabbiadini up top to provide the goals.
The relegation from Division One - our first in the top flight since 1984-85 - was the one negative on Smith’s record as Sunderland manager, having taken the club from rock bottom following our drop into the Third Division resulting in three years of constant progress.
Considering the constraints placed on Denis Smith that came as the club struggled to keep pace with the progress on the pitch, our bid to remain in the First Division was a heroic effort, and it was a case of convincing Smith to remain at Sunderland during the summer and not take up the offer to return to Stoke City.
But once again the manager wasn’t backed in the transfer market and we began the season with exactly the same squad that was on the books a year previously, where six of the starting XI that took on Derby County on the opening day of the 1991-92 season, represented Sunderland in the Third Division fours years prior.
It was clear the squad needed freshening up, but without funds coming from the board there was only one option available to Denis Smith, and that was to sell our prize asset Marco Gabbiadini.
The manager knew this would not only be risky but also deeply unpopular, with not only the fans but with the chairman, Bob Murray, who had just named a horse after the striker. By the end of September, Marco had left to join Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace in a deal worth around £1.8 million, which finally gave Denis Smith some funds to strengthen.
Don Goodman, John Byrne and Anton Rogan were added to the ranks, but it wasn’t enough to save the manager’s job, and following a 3-0 defeat to Oxford United in late December, he was sacked and Malcolm Crosby was asked to take the reigns until a replacement could be found.
But what happened next wasn’t part of the script as our league form temporarily improved and we embarked on a run in the FA Cup. Malcolm Crosby was planning to join Smith at Bristol City but as we marched past Oxford in the fourth round, West Ham in the fifth and Chelsea in the quarter-finals, it became clear that Crosby had to see this through until the end.
Our league form dipped as a result where we finished 18th at the end of the Barclays League Division Two campaign, a place lower than when Smith was sacked, and we were comfortably beaten in the final at Wembley after providing Liverpool with a couple of first half frights before they refused to give us the ball anymore.
So there was intrigue as to how Malcolm Crosby would prepare us for the season ahead having been given the job on a permanent basis, albeit a one-year contract, but five weeks later, it wasn’t looking good.
First to leave was club captain Paul Bracewell, who had re-joined the club for a second time in September 1989 from Everton in a deal worth around £200,000, when Kevin Keegan swooped to take the midfielder to Newcastle United after contract negotiations with Sunderland had broken down.
This meant he became essentially a free agent, but in the days before the Bosman ruling, this would result in a tribunal deciding on the fee, which in this case was thought to be ruled at around £250,000, which was only £50,000 more than Sunderland had spent on Bracewell three years earlier.
The fee was a slap in the face for Sunderland chairman Bob Murray, especially as the move to Roker also came after a major ankle injury that kept him out of the game for almost two years, which had cast doubt over his long-term fitness. But as he approached his 30th birthday the following month, he had averaged 46 games a season under Denis Smith for Sunderland.
This left Bob Murray requesting “clear-the-air” talks with his counterpart Sir John Hall, with the Sunderland chairman holding off on any public statement until Malcolm Crosby had returned from holiday, but did say a few words in addition to saying Newcastle’s move was “opportunistic”:
I’m sure Paul Bracewell won’t think he is only worth £250,000. We will sit down and work out a formal statement next week. We certainly can’t let something like this pass without comment.
But as the former Sunderland captain explained on the Roker Rapport podcast back in July 2020 here, the situation was as a result of a one-year contract that was offered to Bracewell, who was out of contract in the summer. With Newcastle offering a longer contract, he was free to make the move and Newcastle United deputy chief executive Freddie Fletcher insisted that they had done nothing to break any rules in making the transfer:
There was nothing unethical in what we did. Paul Bracewell was a free agent and his name was circulated with a list of players that were available. It was up to Sunderland to make him an acceptable offer before he was put on the list. We don’t make the rules but we abide by them.
Sir John Hall is abroad at the moment but I am sure he would be happy to meet Bob Murray if Sunderland want to discuss the way we have handles things.
Paul Hardyman and David Rush were also out of contract and had rejected Sunderland’s new offers in a bid to leave, with Hardyman attracting interest from Bristol Rovers and Norwich City reportedly tracking David Rush who had impressed during our run to the FA Cup final that year.
It had only been a matter of weeks into the job for Crosby but it was already looking tough ahead of the 1992-93 season.