Mick Buxton’s Sunderland had dropped to 20th in the Endsleigh League Division One having won one game in the last seven – and the final defeat at Barnsley was the final straw.
The club was a mess.
New signings, Dominic Matteo, on-loan from Liverpool and Brett Angell, a £600,000 capture from Everton before the transfer deadline, both made their debuts at Oakwell but it didn’t make a difference. Goals from Malcolm Shotton and Andy Payton gave Danny Wilson’s side all three points and a 2-0 on a Friday evening at the end of March.
In the case of Dominic Matteo, however, it very nearly did make a difference as Sunderland were to have deemed to have bungled the transfer and not actually registered him in time, but played him anyway.
For this, Sunderland would have to plead it was simple incompetence rather than anything sinister so the FA would not dock us any points. We were so badly run that they believed us wholeheartedly.
We were a shambles.
And then Peter Reid arrived at the club ahead of our next fixture on the 1st of April against Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United side, and things changed. Twelve points in the remaining seven games meant we retained our status in Division One and could look forward to a full season under the management of the former Manchester City boss.
But this didn’t change anything in terms of the club's finances, and Reid knew that. Even as rumours spread that he’d be looking to bring some of his former England teammates such as Chris Waddle to the club, it was clear that this wouldn’t be the case.
As Sunderland returned from a tour of Ireland and took on Darlington at Feethams in our penultimate pre-season friendly just less than two weeks ahead of the new season, John Mullin from Burnley was the only confirmed ‘new’ signing that had come through the doors at Roker, although Paul Bracewell had rejoined the club as player-assistant manager.
One stumbling block Peter Reid had to overcome to make space and raise funds was being able to offload players he deemed to be surplus to requirements.
The player closest to the exit door was injury-plagued midfielder Shaun Cunnington, who was on the verge of linking up with his former Grimsby Town manager at West Bromwich Albion.
The fee was believed to be around £50,000, which was a fraction of the £600,000 Malcolm Crosby had shelled out for Grimsby Town to part with their captain three years previously, as Peter Reid provided more information about the potential departure:
Shaun has had a terrible time with injuries and perhaps a change of environment will do him good. Alan Buckley spoke to me just after the season ended and has always been interested in the lad. I’ve had a chat about the money and I can’t see it being a problem.
Lee Howey was also in talks with Northampton Town looking to agree personal terms for a potential move away from Roker, but contract rebel Derek Ferguson had his agent claim that he would like to stay at Sunderland.
Bill McMurdo, representing Ferguson, had suggested that the rumours that the ex-Rangers midfielder was desperate to leave Sunderland and head back to Scotland were wide of the mark:
Derek would have no hesitation in signing a new contract if he was offered a two or three year deal. It is not the case that he is desperate to return to Scotland. Of course it is an option but ideally he wants to tie himself to Sunderland. The meeting was very constructive and now we are thinking things over. In the meantime the lad will train with his teammates.
Ferguson had been left out of the squad that travelled to Ireland on tour and was expected to leave the club.
In terms of transfer targets, Reid announced that he had failed to claim the signature of Darlington defender Adam Reed who was expected to join Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers for £250,000. Meanwhile, the media North of the border were reporting that Sunderland were poised to place a bid for Celtic defender Tony Mowbray who was refusing to sign a new deal at Parkhead.
Incidentally, Sunderland won 3-2 against Darlington, and for those few in attendance witnessed something of a miracle - as Brett Angell scored in a Sunderland shirt.
Darlington 2-3 Sunderland
[Appleby 59’, Blake 66’ - Angell 25’, Agnew 43’, Ord 73’]
Darlington: Pollitt, Shaw, Worboys, Mattison (Blake), Scott (Skedd), Appleby, Himsworth (Carss), Brumwell, Olsson, Bannister, Gaughan
Sunderland: Chamberlain (Preece), Kubicki, Ball, Ord, Martin Gray, Michael Gray, Bracewell, Agnew (Atkinson), Armstrong (Russell), Angell, Phil Gray