At the end of the 1993-94 season Sunderland and Bristol City finished smack bang in the middle of Endsleigh League Division One, and a game played out between the two sides on this day gave a big clue as to why.
The 0-0 draw that ensued may have done little to set the pulses racing but there were still some positives to be had, and when viewed in a wider context it did at least continue the trend of steady development.
Finishing in midtable wasn’t too bad an outcome in itself, with manager Mick Buxton having pulled the side away from relegation danger after taking up to hot seat in Autumn following the departure of Terry Butcher.
He had inherited a squad that was low on confidence and had been porous at the back, and whilst it took time to reorganise things, the situation was a vast improvement on what had gone before.
The biggest plus on this occasion was the clean sheet, which was even more impressive given the fact that regular back four members Gary Bennett and Richard Ord were both suspended. The issues in defence had not been down to individuals as such, and so Buxton had been trying to set things up differently – with the team unit now able to cover for their absences and keep Bristol City out.
It did help that the visitors came to Wearside looking to ‘park the bus’, just as they had almost exactly a year before when the match had also ended goalless. What wasn’t so handy however was an early injury to Don Goodman, who now had to be withdrawn before half time after tearing his groin. Sunderland may have tightened up at the back, but without the previous campaign’s top scorer they were now less effective going the other way.
It was left then to three youngsters to provide an element of excitement. Even without Ord in the side there was a healthy smattering of local lads at this point, and three recent graduates from the club’s youth set up were starting to make waves in the first team. Michael Gray, Martin Smith and Craig Russell all brought bundles of energy onto the pitch against the Robins, and whilst goal mouth action was at a premium, they were constantly trying to spark something.
The trio would all go on to have a big part to play in the coming years, but for one man this was to be their last appearance for Sunderland. Jamie Lawrence, who came on as a substitute for Goodman, had made his senior debut for the Lads earlier in the season but having only recently turned professional it was decided that a move to Doncaster Rovers would be better for his career. He later went on to win the Coca Cola Cup with Leicester City and won full international honours with Jamaica.
Other than that sidenote, there was little to make the afternoon stick in the memory of those in the stands. Attendances had remained steady enough despite question marks about the general direction the club was heading in, and whilst hopes of reaching the new fangled Premiership or moving to a new ground seemed far off, the picture was slowly improving – the unbeaten run at Roker Park had now been stretched to six league and cup games, and Sunderland were able to start looking up the table instead of down.
Saturday 12th February, 1994
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 0-0 Bristol City
Sunderland: Chamberlain; Owers, Ball, Melville, Mi. Gray; Smith, Ferguson, Atkinson, Russell; Goodman (Lawrence), P. Gray Unused: Norman, Sampson.
Bristol City: Welch, Harriott, Scott, Shail, Munro, Edwards, Martin (Bryant), Pennyfather, Robinson (Brown), Allison, Tinnion Unused: Leaning
Attendance: 16, 816