By January 1994, Bob Murray had been majority shareholder and chairman of the club for around seven years - and it’s probably fair to say those seven years had been mixed.
One of Murray’s first major decisions was to take Denis Smith and Viv Busby from York City to inject new life into the club following our drop to Division Three and considering they took us back up to the top flight in three years, that decision could be described as inspired.
It was following our return to Division One where things started to go a bit wrong and it all began with a lack of funds to provide Smith a fighting chance of keeping us in the top flight and establishing ourselves in the build-up to the introduction of the Premier League in 1992.
Following relegation, once again the manager had to find ways to strengthen without spending and finally our biggest asset was sold when Marco Gabbiadini joined Crystal Palace for £1.8 million in September 1991. Smith was then sacked in December and Malcolm Crosby was next in line to feel the frustration of being asked to work miracles on a shoestring.
After a couple of close shaves in avoiding a return to the third tier, Crosby’s successor, Terry Butcher, was finally provided funds, but unfortunately for Murray, the ex-England defender wasn’t capable of getting the best out of his newly assembled squad.
In November 1994, the outlook was bleak and following a 2-0 home defeat to Barry Fry’s Southend United, there were three announcements: Terry Butcher was relieved of his duties, reserve team manager Mick Buxton was taking charge and Bob Murray was standing down as chairman but still the majority shareholder.
In terms of the new managerial choice, it was our third successive internal appointment and the impact on club funds was significant. By late January, Mick Buxton had done a fantastic job to steady the ship on the pitch as described by John Gibson in the Evening Chronicle:
Buxton has done magnificently, working in an atmosphere of comparative poverty yet pulling Sunderland out of their Butcher-induced slump with seven wins and three draws in 12 starts since taking charge...
The terminology used in describing the upturn in fortunes tells a story of the situation off the pitch. The club were desperate to raise money from whatever avenue was open to them and this became common knowledge when form Labour leader Roy Hattersley revealed that Sunderland general manager and director, Geoff Davidson had mentioned in conversation that players may have to be sold to offset a £1 million overdraft.
Even before this revelation, the signs were there when Sunderland advertised in the Financial Times for backers to part with £500,000 to invest in the club with Bob Murray making it clear he was prepared to unload his controlling share in the club.
It was also understood, according to Brian McNally in the Sunday S*n, that the club had approached millionaire songwriter Tim Rice to buy and own the club outright. At this point Murray owned 60% of the shares and a purchase of 51% would give Tim Rice the golden amount to take ownership - which would cost somewhere in the region of £2 million.
A source “close to the board” said:
Talks regarding Bob Murray’s shareholding have begun. Tim Rice is part of those discussions.
Buckinghamshire-born Rice once described how he became to become a Sunderland fan:
I’ve been a Sunderland fan since the age of eight. I just like the sound of their name.
In terms of raising funds through player sales, the obvious player on everyone’s minds was striker Don Goodman, who had already contributed with 12 goals since the start of the season. A bid of £1.5 million had already been rejected that was placed by Peter Reid at Manchester City, but the Sunderland board were holding out for a bid of closer to £2 million.
At the same time, Buxton was looking to add to his options and was linked with a move for former Middlesbrough striker Bernie Slaven who had been put up for sale by Port Vale, despite only being at the club seven months after his move from Ayresome Park. The only sticking point was that it was doubtful Mick Buxton had enough money in his wallet to secure the signature of the former Republic of Ireland international.