From the day Denis Smith’s Sunderland were relegated from Division One in May 1991 until Peter Reid strode in through the door to take charge of his first game at Roker against Sheffield United on the 1st April 1995, following the Lads was a bit of a tough gig.
Smith was quickly replaced with his assistant Malcolm Crosby, who went on to provide a brief glimmer of hope by reaching the FA Cup final, but that soon faded and Crosby was replaced by someone he brought to the club as a player in Terry Butcher.
The change came following a 2-1 home defeat to Watford in late-January as the Lads sat five places and four points above the drop. Ten days later, Butcher took charge for the first time in the role of player-manager for the visit to Roker Park of Swindon Town, who also had a player-manager in the form of Glenn Hoddle.
It was a sign of things to come as it ended in a 1-0 defeat via a Paul Bodin goal, after Sunderland had missed two penalties - which you can read more about here.
Things didn’t improve from there and in the end Butcher finished four places lower in the table than when he took charge and survival was only achieved as results went our way as we went down 3-1 at Notts County on the final day of the season.
The summer of 1993 therefore, was Butcher’s chance to rebuild his squad and he went to work immediately when a long list of players, including Gary Owers and Gordon Armstrong, were transfer-listed - but the bids that had been forthcoming in previous years for the two midfielders had dried up.
Mick Harford moved to Coventry City in a deal worth around £200,000 and Bob Murray dipped into his pocket to provide the manager with funds that hadn’t been made available to managers in previous years.
In came Alec Chamberlain and Phil Gray from Luton Town on a free transfer and around £750,000 respectively, Ian Rodgerson arrived from Birmingham City, Derek Ferguson came from Hearts of Midlothian in a swap deal that involved John Colquhoun going the opposite way and Andy Melville was involved in another swap deal when he and Anton Rogan moved between Sunderland and Oxford United.
Then a week before the start of the season, with all five new signings in action, Sunderland went to Ayresome Park for Gary Hamilton’s testimonial and put in a good performance to beat Middlesbrough 2-1 - all seemed to be looking good, but that’s when it started to go wrong.
On the return journey from Teesside, all of the new signings other than Alec Chamberlain shared a car on the journey home and were involved in a serious accident that resulted in all them suffering injuries of varying degrees - and you can listen to Phil Gray describe the seriousness of the incident when he spoke to the Roker Rapport podcast here.
A week later, Sunderland travelled to Arthur Cox’s Derby County in baking hot conditions, who were fancied to be in the mix for promotion, with Phil Gray and Ian Rodgerson ruled out of contention.
Although shaken up, Andy Melville and Derek Ferguson made the starting XI, but with the Lads already a goal down, which came via a 9th minute Mark Pembridge penalty, Ferguson had to be replaced by Brian Atkinson with twenty minutes on the clock.
As another sign of how the rebuild hadn’t quite gone to plan, also in the starting XI were Owers and Armstrong who had been told weeks earlier they were surplus to requirements, and were now seemingly integral to our season ahead.
Five minutes before the break, even though he had won the penalty for the home side, the inevitable goal from former striker Marco Gabbiadini came. In typical fashion he used his pace and strength to force his way through the flimsy Sunderland defence before smashing past debutant Alec Chamberlain.
Even though it was around a month short of being two years since Gabbiadini left Roker, there was none of the apologetic celebrations you see in the modern game when former players score against their former sides - Marco made it pretty clear how pleased he was with getting off the mark for the season, regardless of the opposition.
On the stroke of half-time, Pembridge virtually sealed all three points with an impressive shot from the edge of the box to bag his second of the day. Then just after the hour mark, it went from being a bad day at the office to a disastrous one.
First Paul Kitson scored a tap-in after Sunderland’s defence were non-existent and allowed Paul Simpson to run in on goal from the half-way line, and a minute later Craig Short headed home from a corner to make it 5-0.
Sometimes it only takes one game to know exactly where a season is headed.
Saturday 14th August, 1993
Endsleigh League Division One
Derby County 5-0 Sunderland
[Pembridge (pen) 9’, 45’, Gabbiadini 39’, Kitson 64’, Short 65’]
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kay, Sampson, Melville, Gray, Owers, Ferguson (Atkinson), Cunnington, Armstrong, Goodman, Howey (Power) Substitutes not used: Norman
Derby County: Taylor, Charles, Short, Wassall, Forsyth, Simpson, Kuhl, Williams, Pembridge, Kitson, Gabbiadini Substitutes not used: Sutton, Kavanagh, Johnson