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On This Day (5th June 1991): Sunderland fear exodus ahead of high court showdown!

If relegation from Division One wasn’t bad enough in the summer of 1991, Sunderland were also about to defend themselves in the high court and the future of many of the players and manager hinged on the outcome.

Photo by Mark Leech/Offside via Getty Images

After Denis Smith arrived as the new Sunderland manager in the summer of 1987 we saw consistent progress on the pitch, despite minimal financial outlay.

Smith had not only achieved his initial target of getting the Lads back into Division Two as quickly as possible, but within two seasons of claiming the third division title, Sunderland were back in the top flight.

There may have been an element of fortune about the events that played out, in terms of defeat at Wembley by Swindon Town, followed by their financial ‘irregularities’ that saw them initially demoted two divisions - but that didn’t change the fact that Denis Smith was dragging the club forward.

A lot of this was performed on a shoestring budget, and the former Stoke City defender was required to combine his bargain-hunting skills alongside his ability to integrate younger players into the squad, but this was all achieved with a cloud hanging over the club and the future of chairman Bob Murray.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers
Sir Bob Murray
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

For a number of years, former shareholder Barry Batey had alleged that the share deal between Sir Bob Murray and Sir Tom Cowie back in 1984 had infringed the club’s Articles of Association. In addition to this, there were also claims the club’s rules were broken by former managing director Lawrie McMenemy and still general manager Geoff Davidson. This had all built up to the case at the high court that was about to play out in June of 1991.

The court case had cast such a shadow on the club that it was partly responsible for Smith not receiving the funds he needed to keep the club in Division One. Following relegation, the rumours began almost as soon as the final whistle sounded at Maine Road on the final day of the season, but the potential ramifications from the legal situation only fueled the flames.

With everything taken into account, things looked bleak, and generating the majority of the column inches was the future of Marco Gabbiadini. The striker had already been at Roker for four years and at the age of 23 years old was being tracked by a host of top flight clubs, but the future of manager Denis Smith was what might prove to be pivotal to where the England ‘B’ international would play his football.

John Anderson and Marco Gabbiadini
Marco Gabbiadini
Photo by Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images

Smith himself, who was hurting following a relegation that was potentially avoidable in a season that only two sides dropped to the second division, was also waiting for the outcome of the legal battle before deciding if he was to stay at Roker. He was also considering a potential move back to Stoke City who had their former defender in their sights as their new manager. Although Smith made a statement, he was keeping his cards close to his chest:

I haven’t got a crystal ball. I have a contract with Sunderland for another two years, not with Bob Murray or anyone else. I am not in a position to assess anything until after the court case.

As a result, Viv Busby’s future was also under threat as it was assumed he would follow Smith out of the door. At the top, Murray would have been the first out of the door, but vice-chairman Graham Wood, general manager Geoff Davidson and commercial manager Alec King would also be likely to leave the club if the legal battle didn’t go in the right direction for the club.

If that wasn’t all, Vaux Breweries, who had just completed a deal with the club worth £500,000 spread out over the next three years, were also said to be considering where the deal would stand if Murray lost the case.

The case wrapped up in the Royal Courts of Justice on the 10th June - which you can read more about here.


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