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The summer of 1993 seemed much more than just over a year since we had reached the FA Cup final under Malcolm Crosby. For a start, the 1992-93 saw a change of manager as Crosby was replaced in the dugout by a man he brought to the club as a player in the form of Terry Butcher.
The former Rangers and England defender initially began as player-manager and ended up finishing four places worse off than when he took on the role - where we only survived relegation on the final day of the season due to other results coming to our rescue.
Despite this, the board felt that was enough evidence to not only give him another crack at it the following season, but also to provide him with funds that Denis Smith and Crosby had been crying out for in previous years.
This made the summer of 1993 a busy one at Roker with the arrivals of Alec Chamberlain and Phil Gray from Luton Town, Andy Melville from Oxford United, Derek Ferguson from Heart of Midlothian and Ian Rodgerson from Birmingham City.
Unfortunately, as far as Butcher was concerned, all the business was being conducted in one direction, and despite transfer-listing the likes of Gary Owers, Gordon Armstrong and Anthony Smith, there were no offers on the table.
Optimism was high as the start of the season approached due to the new arrivals, something that was quickly extinguished when for of them were involved in a car accident a week before the season kicked off at Derby County - which ended in a 5-0 defeat.
After six league games, the Lads were bottom of the table. Hope was provided by two impressive victories against Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United in the League Cup that inspired two successive wins in mid-October against Luton Town and West Bromwich Albion.
A bizarre exit from the League Cup came at Roker against Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa, which was followed by five straight league defeats that saw Butcher’s side slip back down the table, and after a 2-0 loss at Southend United, Terry Butcher was sacked.
It was decided by the board that reserve team coach Mick Buxton, whose record included an impressive stint with Huddersfield Town that impressed Bob Murray, would step up to take charge of the first team.
The new manager had only 24 hours to prepare for the visit of recently relegated Nottingham Forest to Roker in his first game, where a much improved performance was spoiled by the genius on the day of Stan Collymore who scored two in a 3-2 win for the visitors.
A trip to Jim Smith’s play-off chasing Portsmouth was up next, and against the odds, a Martin Smith goal was enough to take a much needed three points at Fratton Park. The following week became a farce in front of the Tyne-Tees cameras at Grimsby Town when a waterlogged pitch saw the game abandoned after only minutes had been played.
Next up, in what was Buxton’s third game in charge that would produce a valid result, was a chance for the Lads to put right the opening day horror show with Derby County coming to Wearside.
By this time the Rams had dispensed with the services of Bob Stokoe’s assistant at Sunderland, Arthur Cox, and Roy McFarland was now in charge at the Baseball Ground, with all involved no doubt disappointed they were sitting 10th considering how much had been spent in the search for promotion.
Buxton’s side would run out 1-0 winners thanks to an 8th minute goal from Phil Gray, with Ian Murtagh summarising the afternoon in the Evening Chronicle:
Mick Buxton demanded graft, energy and raw commitment - and his team obliged with a performance oozing passion.
But in a highly-charged contest played at a frightening pace, it needed a rare moment of composure and sublime finishing to seal the points. Phil Gray’s cool finishing in the eighth minute, chipping in from 20 yards following a defensive mix-up in the Derby box, was out of character with much of the action.
For this was a game when fierce tackling, organisational discipline and at times sheer stubbornness at the back proved the decisive qualities for a Sunderland side at last emerging from their early-season nightmare.
Saturday 18th December, 1993
Sunderland 1-0 Derby County
[P. Gray 8’]
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Owers, Bennett, Melville, Ma. Gray, Cunnington (Atkinson), Ferguson, Ball, Smith, Goodman, P. Gray Substitutes not used: Norman, Russell
Derby County: Taylor, Charles, Short, Wassall, Harkes, Kuhl, Pembridge (Williams), Simpson (Johnson), Kitson, Gabbiadini Substitutes not used: Sutton