Roker Park may hold many special memories for those fortunate enough to have watched games there but in 1994, a trip to the famous old ground wasn’t quite as appealing as it had been in the past.
Appointed just before the year started, manager Mick Buxton had made the Lads hard to beat but the football was often unspectacular. His teams were well organised and solid but they didn’t always carry enough of a goal threat and particularly at home, where draws became increasingly common.
The sale of striker Don Goodman, although understandable, hadn’t helped matters and the visit of Derby County on this day in 1994 did little to allay fears that Buxton would struggle to ring the changes in the new year.
The best supporters thought they could hope for was more of the same, and with little prospect of challenging in the top half of the table, optimism was in short supply on Wearside.
A lacklustre first half against the Rams, during which both sides struggled to find any rhythm and were often let down by some poor passing, caused further frustration on the terraces but on this occasion, Buxton was able to use the half time break to get into his players and rouse them.
Sunderland re-emerged from the tunnel with the bit between their teeth and we soon took the lead after catching Derby cold.
Some of the funds received for Goodman had been put towards a player-plus-cash deal for Martin Scott, who in only his third appearance for the club, nodded the ball back into the box after it had been half-cleared.
From there, Craig Russell touched it on and Phil Gray reacted quickest to slide a shot under the body of goalkeeper Steve Sutton from six yards out. It was just the tonic to lift spirits and in the moments afterwards, it looked like we were about to extend our lead.
Gordon Armstrong, brought back into the starting eleven for the match, had a good game and both Russell and Dariusz Kubicki went close to another goal amid a flurry of activity.
However, as if shocked by our sudden prowess, the Lads left the back door open and that defensive surety unexpectedly collapsed when the visitors hit back with the simplest of goals through Tommy Johnson, who finished well after latching onto a basic punt through the middle.
It was a sucker punch that broke through our fragile confidence, and despite the best efforts of Martin Smith, who alongside Armstrong was our best performer, we were unable to get back to the level of fluidity we’d just been starting to show.
We’d already completed more draws than any other side in the division at that stage in the season and this stalemate left us in a rather listless sixteenth place overall.
In the end however, even mid-table obscurity proved to be out of reach.
We lost our way entirely as belief ebbed away just before the vital run in, and it was to be the jolt brought about by a new manager that eventually brought Sunderland back to life in 1995.
Saturday 31 December 1994
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 1 (P. Gray 47’)
Derby County 1 (Johnson 60’)
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Bennett; Melville, Scott, Smith; Ball, Atkinson (M.Gray 76’), Armstrong; P. Gray, Russell
Subs Not Used: Norman, Brodie