Time moves quickly in football. Two years earlier, Terry Butcher had captained England to the World Cup Semi-Final, and a heroic penalty defeat to West Germany.
In Bryan Robson’s absence (Robson had ruptured his Achilles in a group game draw against the Netherlands) 31-year-old Butcher had taken on the armband and led the country to its most successful World Cup campaign for the best part of 25 years.
The tournament – which England qualified for with Butcher resplendent in his now-iconic bloodied head bandage and shirt against Sweden – had genuinely captivated the country. Off the back of a decade or so of football being a sport for the hooligans and not the masses, Italia 90 had given the game a reset, and Butcher, Waddle, Platt, Pearce Gazza and Lineker had been a major part of that.
In the months that followed Italia 90, Butcher suffered a downturn of form at Rangers which saw him dropped, and was on the verge of a transfer to top-flight Leeds United – managed by Howard Wilkinson – before fellow First Division team Coventry took a punt on him as player-manager to replace FA Cup-winning manager John Sillett, five days after Sillett managed Coventry to a 0-0 draw at Roker.
A £400,000 transfer fee was paid, as Butcher was still a player.
Butcher made just six appearances for Coventry – he didn’t pick himself in the Coventry squad that held the lads to a 0-0 draw at Highfield Road later in the season – and he retired from playing to concentrate on management shortly after.
He managed Coventry for 60 games, but was given the boot in January 1992, with assistant Don Howe – who’d been Bobby Robson’s assistant during Italia 90 – taking over.
Up in the north east, Sunderland were without a manager after the departure of Denis Smith, and Butcher was loosely linked with the job – however, Bob Murray’s sights were fixed firmly on two options: Neil Warnock and Steve Coppell, neither of whom he was able to tempt, although Warnock has subsequently said that’s the biggest regret of his career.
The FA Cup run somewhat forced Murray’s hand and he appointed Malcolm Crosby permanent manager despite our league form seeing us avoid a double relegation by just five points.
After losing Paul Bracewell, Crosby needed experience in the dressing room, and with the help of his new assistant Bobby Ferguson entered talks to bring Butcher out of his 18-month retirement and have a playing trial at Sunderland.
Butcher had agreed to give it a crack. The more sceptical supporter saw it as an opportunistic way of getting into line at a club who were managed by a novice manager who may not last the season; the more romantic viewed it as a player who loved football having a last hurrah.
The truth was probably somewhere in the middle.
So, on this day 30 years ago, the on-trial Butcher was preparing to make his Roker Park bow after navigating his way through a couple of friendly fixtures north of the border, and another at Carlisle, where he scored in a 3-2 defeat.
Our home friendly on this day in 1992 was a game against Spurs to celebrate Sunderland’s city status. It was free for supporters to attend, and Chris covered the game itself in detail here last year.
But today, we’re focusing on the sub-plot, Butcher’s return to action, and in the lead up it was evident he wasn’t that sure about the whole thing.
I still need to convince myself about my fitness and mobility.
My knee seems to have stood up well in the three friendlies so far. But with the greatest of respect to the sides we’ve played, the big test will come against a quality team like Spurs.
This is a very important game both for me and the club.
I’m enjoying it here. There’s a great bunch of lads and it’s a nice club, but I’m still very much here on a trial basis and I’m putting thoughts of a contract to the back of my mind.
I don’t want to rush into anything. It’s difficult after a gap of 18 months. I’ll see how it goes against Spurs and then against Scunthorpe on Saturday.
Butcher had been paired in central defence with new captain Kevin Ball, who’d taken on the armband after Bracewell’s defection, and Butcher was full of compliments for his new skipper.
Kevin reminds me a lot of my old partner Graham Roberts. And that’s as high a compliment as I can pay. Kevin is a good leader and winner of the ball, He has a lot of power and strikes the ball well.
Butcher did line up against Spurs – for whom new signing Darren Anderton scored a hattrick in an easy 3-0 win – and against Scunthorpe the following weekend.
As a player back in 1992, you could see his class on the ball, and his leadership skills on the field were still as evident as they were in his heyday, but predictably his pace – which to be fair, was never a strong point – left a lot to be desired.
Butcher did sign a playing contract, ultimately playing 42 times for the club during the course of the season, and he did pretty well all things considered.
But, as the sceptics had foreseen, it was he – and not Malcolm Crosby – who was writing the name ‘Butcher’ on the team sheet for the second half of the season...