The final season of the Mick Buxton era wasn’t actually looking that bad as the winter months approached. An impressive 4-1 win away against Jim Smith’s Portsmouth in late November found us sitting in 12th, with a view to becoming a contender for the top-six as the season went on.
But a run of two wins in the next 17 games had us deep in trouble at the wrong end of the season as the final couple of months of the season approached, and with seven games to go the patience wore out with Mick Buxton.
It was a dismal 2-0 defeat to Danny Wilson’s Barnsley at Oakwell that was the final straw, in a game where new signings Dominic Matteo and Brett Angell made their Sunderland debuts.
Following almost eight years where managerial appointments were made exclusively from within the club, it was refreshing when Bob Murray managed to persuade former Manchester City player-manager Peter Reid to rescue the club from free-fall into the third tier of English football once again.
Reid collected 12 from a possible 21 points which secured Sunderland’s status in the Endsleigh League Division One for another year and also sealed the deal on a longer term contract offer to stay at Roker Park beyond those seven games.
Then it was the beginning of Peter Reid’s first summer in charge of the club, and with a high profile name came being linked with high profile players, but not many had picked out what would be Reid’s first signing as manager at Roker.
Even though it was common knowledge that Sunderland weren’t in great shape financially, Reid still took the challenge on, but it did not stop the increase in expectation or player we were linked with.
But with the first signing that summer there was a feeling of a bargain with potential when John Mullin signed from Burnley, which was echoed by the player himself as the 19-year-old had only made 20 senior appearances for Burnley to date, scoring two goals in the process:
Let’s face it, I’m a gamble whatever price is et. Sunderland are probably buying me on my potential not on what I’ve done already. But despite my inexperience I’ve bags of confidence and plenty of ambition. It’s up to me to fulfil my potential at a big club Sunderland.
If I do the transfer fee will look a bargain. At today’s prices I’d like to think I’ll be worth more than a million in a couple of years. I know I can score goals and the Burnley fans thought so too. If they’d picked the team I would always have been in it. Instead the boss always went for experience.
Everywhere you go players talk about Sunderland fans but the scenes at Burnley at the end of the season when they took over the ground were something else. That’s the most fanatical support I’ve ever seen. From talkin to Peter Reid I sense the place is about to take off.
Heaven knows how they would react to a bit of success.
Sunderland were also linked with two goalkeepers, both with deals that would involve increasing levels of complexity. The first issue was, in the case of Brad Friedel, the issuing of a work permit following a £600,000 offer already being accepted for the American keeper.
The second issue was Barry Fry. The Birmingham City manager had publicly commented on stories that would see his goalkeeper, Ian Bennett, move to Roker Park:
Peter [Reid] was impressed with Bennett when he saw him a couple of times while out of a job. Last week he phoned me to ask if I’d sell Ian and I said yes - if he had three, four or five million pound!
It’s the way you tell ‘em, Barry.
There were also rumours of high profile players potentially leaving the club, the first involved our Welsh central defender Andy Melville, who was attracting the interest of Peter Reid’s former England teammate Terry Fenwick, who was manager at Portsmouth.
Reid’s response to the interest however was to suggest that he would only consider Melville leaving Roker in a deal that would see Pompey striker Gerry Creaney move in the opposite direction.
On the subject of strikers, with Don Goodman having left a year previously, it left Phil Gray as the senior striker at the club and this meant the rumours were beginning to circulate regarding our Northern Ireland international.
The sale of Chris Armstrong from newly relegated Crystal Palace to Spurs for around £4.5 million, meant that there was an opening at Palace in that position and they had the funds to plug the gap.
It was rumoured that Reid had valued Gray at around the £1.5 million mark to any potential parties interested.