Mick Buxton had steadied the ship since taking over from Terry Butcher during the campaign just gone, and there were some cautiously optimistic predictions being made in the early weeks of 1994-95 as he looked to continue the turnaround.
Transfer activity was minimal but Buxton, who had grown up supporting the club, was employing a safety first approach that made the current team difficult to beat.
After a lean couple of years in the second tier the evidence was that the foundations for a potential push up the table were now being put in place, and a decent showing against Premiership outfit Sheffield Wednesday in the final pre-season friendly suggested the Lads were not a million miles off where they needed to be.
The biggest problem though seemed to be getting the balance right between staying solid at the back whilst also being able to threaten when going forward.
Sunderland had endured some miserable defeats in recent times and with a lot of the board’s attention having to be funnelled towards finding a new home in the wake of the Taylor Report there was the danger that things would stagnate on the pitch in the meantime; the first two league fixtures of the new season, draws against Bristol City and Millwall, only went to emphasise how hard it was going to be to find a cutting edge and bring an element of excitement to those still populating the outgoing terraces.
Buxton didn’t just have the nous required to organise a back four going for him, however.
Amongst his squad were some solid professionals and several eager homegrown youngsters, whilst an unbeaten away record stretching back to April now stood at five – meaning a trip to Stoke City on this day provided the perfect opportunity to push on and get something more.
The hosts were expected to try and force the issue and that suited Sunderland’s style down to the ground.
Kevin Ball and Derek Ferguson worked hard to control the middle of the pitch, allowing Michael Gray the space he needed to lead the charge when in possession.
Working up a dangerous right wing partnership with Dariusz Kubicki, he worked tirelessly in both directions and helped usher in the breakthrough when he chipped the ball over the top for Phil Gray to blast home the only goal of the game.
It was only in the second half that the Potters were able to create meaningful chances of their own, and when they did muster anything, they found Tony Norman to be in a determined mood.
The keeper had pulled off some late heroics against Millwall a week earlier and was just as impressive when he thwarted Martin Carruthers and Paul Peschisolido in the dying stages to confirm what was an otherwise assured victory.
His opposite number Carl Muggleton, who was keeping current SAFC coach Mark Prudhoe out of the starting XI, had been the busier of the two whilst Stoke captain Nigel Gleghorn, like Prudhoe a Wearside lad, had been unable to coax much rhythm from his colleagues.
It was a rare incidence of the travelling fans being happy to see the red and whites lose, the win helping set Sunderland’s longest unbeaten run to a new season since 1910 – the only problem being that most of the games still ended in a stalemate.
The regularity of the draws over the coming weeks frustrated Buxton’s attempts to gather any momentum, and when even the ability to gain a point started to allude him in the new year the lack of attacking intent became more of an issue.
Home form was a particular concern, and what had at first felt like a refreshing rebuild soon run out of steam. The manager did complete a double over Stoke with a Roker win in March 1995, but it was played out amidst an infamous ‘red card’ protest over the general direction of the club and would be the last positive result of his tenure.
Saturday 27 August 1994
Endsleigh League Division One
Stoke City 0
Sunderland 1 (P. Gray 24’)
Sunderland: Norman; Kubicki, Bennett, Melville, Owers; M. Gray (Cunnington 84’), Ferguson, Ball, Atkinson; P. Gray, Goodman. Unused: Chamberlain, Russell.
Victoria Ground, attendance 15,159