It wasn’t until the tail end of 1995 that anyone actually considered that this might be a promotion season. And, despite the eternal optimism engrained in many football supporters, that wasn’t surprising.
The season before, we’d been kept up by the skin of our teeth by the arrival of Peter Reid, and while he’d done an awful lot to invigorate the players and supporters, he hadn’t been able to do too much in the transfer market. In fact, Paul Bracewell’s return for his third spell at the club was his only signing of note.
So, it wasn’t a great surprise to anyone that we went into this early season clash with Southend scrapping around the bottom of the table. One win, two draws and two defeats had seen us claim five points from five, and we came into a home clash with Ronnie Whelan’s Southend off the back of a 3-0 reverse at Portman Road sitting 17th in the table.
It was a tough time being a Sunderland supporter – the Keegan revolution was well underway up the road, with new signing David Ginola taking the Premiership by storm, while down the A19 Bryan Robson was splashing the cash and had turned Middlesbrough into an unlikely home for the likes of Ravenelli and Juninho.
There was a significant reluctance to invest in the club, and fans were getting anxious about what the future might hold – illustrated by a sub-14,000 crowd.
Still, Peter Reid had given us some hope – talk of signing Sheff Wed’s Chris Waddle was constant – and while we hadn’t necessarily got the points on the board, the performances had hinted at something better to come.
Assistant manager Bracewell said:
We’ve come up against all of the favourites for promotion, and competed well with them all.
It gives us a good guideline to our chances this season. I don’t think any team will run away with the league this season, everybody is feeling their way in at the moment, and it’s important we stay in touch.
That’s why we have to make the most of the fact our next two games are at home.
Southend had been a bogey team for us at home in the early 90s – winning all four games played at Roker in the decade so far – so confidence among fans at least wasn’t too high.
And in truth, it was an awful, scrappy game – Craig Russell’s goal on the 40th minute proved to be the winner, and ended the Shrimper’s run of Roker wins. The striker broke clear of the Southend defence and slotted the ball into the bottom corner past keeper Simon Royce.
However, there were talking points aplenty after the game.
Firstly, Reid had subbed Michael Gray a minute before halftime. The gaffer often watched the first half from the director’s box, and, indeed had been up there for Russell’s goal.
However, moments later, he emerged on the touchline, pointing and shouting at Gray, and hauled him off with just a minute of first-half action on the clock.
The Journal reported an interesting exchange between their reporter Tim Taylor and Reidy:
The Journal: What happened with the Michael Gray business, Peter?
Reid: I dragged him off because I wanted to. I’m the manager. He’s got a slight groin strain.
The Journal: You seemed agitated.
Reid: Do you know me? I’m always agitated when I am by a football pitch.
The Journal: You seemed particularly agitated.
Reid: You don’t know me then, because I’ve been a lot more agitated than that.
The Journal: Are you going to explain why you brought him off?
Reid: I’ve just said. He’s got a slight groin strain and I dragged him off.
The Journal: Do you think people will believe you, Peter?
Reid: That’s up to people isn’t it? I could only do it the way I see it.
According to teammates, who preferred to remain anonymous, Reidy objected to a funny look Gray gave the manager after being issued with some instructions, however after the game the future England full back ‘meekly agreed’ with Reid’s assertation that he had a groin strain.
Sunderland ended up playing the game with just ten men after skipper Kevin Ball received his second yellow after a poor late tackle on Southend debutant Mike Marsh, who said:
I felt something hit my thigh, but I did not see what happened. I shut my eyes because with you go in for a 50/50 tackle with Kevin Ball you just hope for the best, don’t you?
Ball was still very much a central defender at this point, and the match report describes a player ‘looking desperately unhappy playing out of position’.
It capped a poor disciplinary run for Bally – he had to be separated by the referee from his own keeper Alec Chamberlain earlier in the season during a cup game against Preston and had already fronted the FA with Reid to explain Sunderland’s poor disciplinary record.
Still, Reid was sticking with his man. When asked about the possibility of Ball being stripped of the captaincy for his poor record, he said it was out of the question.
However, he quipped:
It looks as if Kevin will get more points than us this season.
Fortunately, he was wrong on that score.