As fun as our FA Cup run was back in 1992, it also masked ongoing issues at the club.
Malcolm Crosby had worked miracles when the side were on cup duty after taking over from Denis Smith just after Christmas 1991, but after a bright honeymoon period, our league form became woeful.
Crosby wasn’t able to strengthen the side as he’d have liked, with only Terry Butcher, Shaun Cunnington and John Colquhoun being added to the squad ahead of the start of the 1992-93 season.
By mid-November, Crosby was hanging onto the job by his fingernails. We’d been dumped out of the League Cup by Huddersfield Town, we had been dumped out of the Anglo-Italian cup at the group stage, and only four wins in the first sixteen in the league found us sitting 21st in the table, which was only place above the drop.
More was expected considering most of the playing staff played a part in Sunderland’s brief stay in the top flight only two years prior. Four wins and a draw in the next six games gave Crosby a bit of breathing space, but the pressure was on to lift the club to the safety of mid-table.
Next up at Roker Park was the visit of Cambridge United, who were managed by former Roker favourite Ian Atkins after he had taken over from the infamous John Beck, who were second bottom of the table and deep in trouble to avoid the drop.
Atkins had made 77 appearances for the Lads between 1982 and 1984, captaining the side on occasion, and also had links with Malcolm Crosby’s assistant manager Bobby Ferguson who had signed Atkins for Ipswich Town and helped him break into management at Colchester United.
Ahead of kick-off, Sunderland's assistant manager had commented that despite our low points tally and league position, “No side has beaten us yet, we’ve beaten ourselves each time” and in the fixture against Cambridge on this day in 1993, it sounded pretty accurate.
Sunderland dominated the game from the off with a solid display especially in midfield from players who were looking to find form in their Sunderland careers. Brian Mooney had finally started to show the type of form that convinced Denis Smith to take him from Preston during Sunderland’s fight to avoid the drop from Division One.
It had been two years since Mooney had joined the club in January 1991 for £225,000 and at the time the Preston manager John McGrath had this to say about the Irishman:
The lad is a manager’s nightmare and a supporter’s dream. He’ll excite, frustrate, infuriate and delight but above all else, Brian will be an asset to any side.
His introduction to the top flight did not go all that well and his first full season was a write-off through injury problems and a loan move to Burnley as Sunderland progressed to the cup final suggested his days at Roker were numbered. But the man described as “a throwback to the old-fashioned winger with the emphasis on dribbling skills and trickery” in the Journal was beginning to find some form in the red and white stripes.
After 14 minutes, it was Mooney who opened the scoring with his first goal for the club, with an impressive volley from twenty yards out. Unfortunately, we shot ourselves in the foot and Andy Fensome made it 1-1 two minutes later.
Not long before half-time, the Lads took the lead once again. This time it was David Rush who supplied Mooney with a cross field pass, and by the time the former Preston man had beaten the same player three or four times and crossed the ball, it was Rush who had used the time to get into the box who headed in off the post.
After the break, Mooney and Don Goodman went close as the home side dominated and had their tails up, but the inevitable sucker-punch came just after the hour when Steve Claridge, maybe more well known for his Leicester days, levelled things up once again for the visitors.
Around ten minutes later, we restored our lead for a third time, and it was no more than we deserved. Once again Mooney was the architect, with a cross that fell to substitute Brian Atkinson, who with his first touch of the game volleyed towards goal to see the ball hit the bar and bounce a foot over the line before coming back out. The referee was none the wiser until the linesman flagged to signal it had crossed the line.
Shaun Cunnington went close for Sunderland before once again, Cambridge hit back before we could take the game out of sight. It came six minutes from time when Raynor smashed the ball into the top corner after a goalmouth scramble.
Despite all of our dominance, it was Cambridge who could have nicked all three points late on with multiple chances as it became a nail biting last few moments for the Roker crowd.
Not collecting all three points had a potentially bigger impact as it was a blow in a run of one defeat in seven, where the momentum of a win could have helped take us down a different course. As it was however, three weeks later, at the end of January, Malcolm Crosby was sacked as Sunderland manager.
Saturday 9th January 1993
Barclays League Division One
Sunderland 3-3 Cambridge United
[Mooney 14’, Rush 38’, Atkinson 76’ - Clayton 16’, Claridge 65’, Raynor 84’]
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Ord, Butcher, Gray (Atkinson), Mooney, Ball, Cunnington, Armstrong, Goodman, Rush Substitutes not used: Davenport
Cambridge United: Vaughan, Fensome, Kimble, Raynor, Heathcote, O’Shea, Francis (Rowett), Clayton, Butler, Claridge, Leadbitter (White)