The first half of the 1990’s was a strange time in the history of our football club - we had the peculiar end to the Denis Smith era, the cup run that led to Crosby taking the job permanently, and the inevitable appointment of Terry Butcher.
After taking over in February 1993, Butcher limped us to safety - to the point where we finished three places lower than when the ex-England defender took charge and had to rely on other results to avoid the drop on the final day.
In the summer of 1993, Butcher was given money to spend that Denis Smith was crying out for only two years earlier. In came Phil Gray, Derek Ferguson, Andy Melville, Alec Chamberlain and Ian Rodgerson for fairly big money at the time, so optimism was high for the season ahead.
That was until a week before the season kicked off, however, when four of our new signings were involved in a car accident on the way back from a pre-season friendly against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park - which we won 2-1 incidentally.
Seven days later, we were thumped 5-0 by a Marco Gabbiadini-inspired Derby County at the Baseball Ground on the opening day of the season, which set the tone. By late November, we’d dropped to 20th in the table after five straight defeats and after a 2-0 home defeat to Southend United, Terry Butcher was sacked.
For the third time in a row, chairman Bob Murray looked to appoint from within, this time it was reserve team manager Mick Buxton who stepped up to take management of the first team and the impact was almost immediate.
After losing to a Stan Collymore masterclass in his opening game, we won five and lost one in the next seven league games - taking us back into the safety of midtable. Up next were Lennie Lawrence’s Middlesbrough side who sat on the same points as us in the table.
Craig Russell came in for the injured Don Goodman and on a pitch that only had the penalty areas clear of snow, he should have won a first half penalty for the Lads. Russell looked to take the ball past Richard Liburd and after being upended, the referee incredibly waved play on.
It was goalless at the break, and it took until after the hour mark for the game to spark into life and the deadlock to be broken, when Russell finally won that penalty we should have had in the first half.
This time he broke through the Middlesbrough backline in on goal down the middle, only to be brought down by Nicky Mohan just inside the area - amazingly, Mohan wasn’t even booked for the tackle.
Phil Gray stepped up and slotted it straight down the middle at the Fulwell End to give us the lead. Four minutes later, we doubled our lead. By this time, Lee Howey had come on from the bench to partner Gray up top and from a Martin Smith corner, Howey powered a header home from six yards to put us two up.
Another four minutes later, Boro made things a little nervy when they pulled one back through Steve Vickers, but Buxton’s side held on to take all three points and move up to the dizzy heights of 14th in the table.
Sunday 16th January 1994
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 2-1 Middlesbrough
[Gray (pen) 67’, Howey 71’ - Vickers 75’]
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Owers, Bennett, Melville, Ord, Smith, Ferguson, Ball, Armstrong (Howey), Russell (Atkinson), Gray Substitutes not used: Norman
Middlesbrough: Pears, Fleming, Liburd, Pollock, Mohan, Vickers, Stamp (Hignett), Peake, Wilkinson, Mustoe, Moore Substitutes not used: Collett, Whyte