This one hurt. Bar an impressive cup run it had been a bad 12 months at Roker – and this transfer was a consequence of how poorly the club was run, and the culmination of a series of squandered opportunities.
Denis Smith had dragged the club from Division Three up to the top flight of English football on a shoestring budget in three years against the backdrop of a court case regarding how shares in the club had exchanged hands over the years.
Sunderland had a chance to establish themselves in Division One, with the introduction of the Premier League just around the corner, but Smith had one hand tied behind his back.
One player that the former Stoke City defender had been able to add to the ranks was Paul Bracewell, who joined for his second spell at the club from Everton at the beginning of the 1989-90 season for £250,000.
Bracewell had been a revelation during his previous spell at the club after arriving at Roker in the summer of 1983 from Stoke City and was immediately in demand. After only a year, the Everton manager Howard Kendall had managed to secure his signature, with newly-appointed manager Len Ashurst cashing in on the talented youngster to fund his own rebuild.
In his first season at Goodison, he made over 50 appearances as Everton were an FA Cup final defeat away from claiming a treble after already securing the league title and European Cup Winners Cup.
Following a career-threatening injury in 1986 that would take two years to recover from, Bracewell contacted his former Stoke City colleague Denis Smith and returned to Roker as Sunderland had just consolidated in Division Two the year following promotion from the third tier.
In his first season, he helped the club to a top-six finish and. due to Swindon Town’s ‘financial irregularities’ we found ourselves in Division One, where Bracewell played 37 league games in our brave effort to beat the drop.
And this is where the downward trajectory began.
The squad had many of the same players who turned out in Division Three, and following relegation Smith wasn’t provided with the funds to freshen up the squad as he’d have liked.
As a result, the goalscoring star of the side, Marco Gabbiadini, was sold to fund acquisitions such as Don Goodman, John Byrne and Anton Rogan, but just weeks after the new arrivals unpacked their bags, Smith was sacked.
Malcolm Crosby stepped in as caretaker manager and although, other than a brief spell initially, the league form didn’t improve much overall, a run to the FA Cup final masked many ongoing issues at the club.
Crosby led his side out at Wembley alongside his captain Bracewell, where Graeme Souness’ Liverpool eventually dominated to lift the cup.
In the lead up to the Final, Crosby had been given the job permanently, but the same problems remained. No funds were forthcoming to back the new manager, and mistakes were being made in retaining the talent we already had at the club.
Bracewell was at this stage 29 years old and as, captain of the club, was looking for a two-year contract. He was only offered one-year, however – a proposal he found in his letter box on returning from defeat at Wembley.
Back in 1992, the Bosman ruling had not yet happened, but players still had the freedom to leave a club. The difference then was rather than being released, a fee would need to be paid – and usually, this was decided by tribunal.
Once Bracewell had informed the Sunderland board of his decision not to sign the contract that was offered, the list of out-of-contract players circulated around the rest of the Football League, with Bracewell’s name included. This alerted the attention of Kevin Keegan, who had recently returned to St James’ Park as manager towards the end of the previous season, and the former Liverpool man made his move.
On this day back in 1992, Bracewell completed his medical, signed a two-year contract, and the only thing left was for the tribunal to decide the fee after the clubs couldn’t come to an agreement, as Keegan explained:
Both Sunderland and ourselves agree that this is the best way to sort this out between two local clubs. But we feel that the tribunal has always been very fair in the past. We are looking at the £200,000 Sunderland paid for Paul three years ago when he was 27 and we are hoping to get him for less than that.
At the time Bracewell commented on the reasons for the move:
I was only offered a one-year contract by Sunderland and when Kevin phoned me up and offered two years I had a good hard think about it.
We recently spoke to Paul Bracewell on the Roker Rapport podcast about his career and how this move came about - which you can listen to here.