Having ended 1993-94 in decent form following Bob Murray’s decision to replace Terry Butcher with Mick Buxton, fans were hopeful of further improvement over the course of the coming season.
Early performances seemed to point towards this too, even though the end product wasn’t quite falling into place.
Three draws and a win from Sunderland’s first four games represented a solid start to the 1994-95 campaign, but it could have so easily been more – and that was a theme that continued on this day when Wolverhampton Wanderers were the visitors to Roker Park and secured a point despite being dominated for large periods.
Before the game Buxton had been forced into a reshuffle at the back – a rib problem for Gary Bennett and an international call up for Andy Melville resulting in returns for Craig Russell and Richard Ord, with skipper Kevin Ball dropping back into the centre of defence to play alongside the latter.
The team soon got into their rhythm though, but not until there had been a moment of reflection following the sad passing earlier in the day of Wolves and England legend Billy Wright, for whom an immaculately observed minute’s silence was held before kick-off.
Ord had been one of the few players to impress in a heavy midweek friendly defeat for the reserves against Burnley that had left Buxton fuming about the attitude of some of his squad.
Speaking in the days leading up to the Wolves fixture he did however single out Ball for praise, suggesting that if some of those around him had a similar level of dedication the club would be in fine fettle.
His point was then underlined when the captain won a header that in turn led to Sunderland’s opener.
Rising strongly to wrestle back possession in his own box, Ball cleared the danger from a deep throw-in to begin a lovely sweeping move that seconds later ended with Phil Gray calmly firing past Mike Stowell.
Strike partner Don Goodman had nodded the ball directly into Gray’s path for his third goal in three games, and that looked to only be the start; the Lads created several more openings, but after being pegged back shortly before the break they were unable to confirm the win their efforts deserved.
Mark Venus equalised when he shot from the edge of the box after a corner was only partially dealt with, but the ‘Merit Marks’ printed in the following day’s edition of The People newspaper told you everything you needed to know about how the match went thereafter.
Gray was made the top performer with a score of nine, whilst Wolves’ star man was goalkeeper Stowell thanks to him making several saves to keep things level.
They meant three draws in a row on Wearside, and left home supporters with a nagging feeling that the Rokerites hadn’t quite made the most of their early season promise.
Buxton felt conflicted too, admitting afterwards that whilst his side would be fine if they continued to play like that too many points being dropped at home would lead to mid-table at best.
History could have perhaps told him though that a victory had been unlikely anyway – the club had not won on the 3rd of September since 1966, drawing only once in six subsequent attempts.
They’ve been unable to improve on the record after hosting Wolves either, as the Lads have not yet played on this date again, a run that will continue this year now that their trip to Middlesbrough has been rearranged for Monday night.
Saturday 3 September 1994
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 1 (Gray 21)
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (Venus 42)
Sunderland: Norman; Owers, Ball, Ord, Kubicki; Mi. Gray, Ferguson, Atkinson, Russell; P. Gray, Goodman. Unused: Chamberlain, Cunnington, Howey.
Roker Park, attendance 15,111