After replacing Terry Butcher as manager at Sunderland in November 1993, Mick Buxton lifted the side from a spot in the relegation zone up to the safety of mid-table with a final table position of 12th.
It was a turnaround that was built on organisation as Buxton made Sunderland difficult to beat almost immediately - where the evidence can be seen in the three games following his first in charge that ended in defeat to a Stan Collymore-inspired Nottingham Forest - with 1-0 wins away to Portsmouth and at home to Derby County followed by a goalless draw away at Bolton Wanderers.
For the beginning of Buxton’s first full season in charge the following year, there were no new additions to the squad to kick the season off, unless you count Dariusz Kubicki, who was on-loan the previous season before making the £100,000 permanent switch from Aston Villa.
After five league games, Sunderland were undefeated, but the problem was that the run included only one victory. This left Buxton’s side in mid-table as they had finished the season prior. Up next, was a trip down the A19 to take on Middlesbrough on this day in 1994.
The summer had seen a reset at Ayresome Park, with new owner Steve Gibson changing Lennie Lawrence for player-manager Bryan Robson in the dugout which made them one of the sides tipped for promotion. This was especially true after they added the likes of Clayton Blackmore, Neil Cox and Nigel Pearson to the ranks.
Sunderland didn’t have the best of records at Ayresome Park, with the same fixture in the previous year ending in a 4-1 defeat but Ian Murtagh’s preview in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle had his crystal ball out:
Sunderland usually lose at Ayresome Park - and it’s often heavily. A repeat of last season’s drubbing is unlikely, with Mick Buxton having organised the team so effectively, but the odds are still stacked against the Rokermen.
Derbies are rarely high-scoring affairs, let alone entertaining, but this one could just break the trend. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sunderland snatch a point in a 2-2 draw but if pushed I’d go for a 3-2 home win.
In the build-up to the Sunday 3pm kick-off that was scheduled to be broadcast live on Tyne-Tees, Gary Bennett was perhaps attempting one or two mind games when he said:
We’re a bigger club than Middlesbrough. We don’t feel we are in the shadows of Middlesbrough. I’ve heard all the talk, but they are not really in the same league for support. We are a bigger club and everybody knows that. If Sunderland were successful, Boro could not match our crowds. It would be a lockout every game if we were at the top like they are.
Purely on the upcoming game itself, the bookies didn’t agree, with Boro priced at 8/11, the draw 9/4 and the Lads were out at 7/1 to claim the three points. But, it was the away side who looked the strongest early on and they could have went ahead when Phil Gray cut inside and crashed a shot against the far post in the early stages.
Buxton’s side had the majority of the ball and Don Goodman missed two more chances that he would have felt he should have scored. With the two strikers still getting their eye in, it was left to 20-year-old Craig Russell, who had been deployed on the left wing to break the deadlock not long before half time, after he cleverly made a yard his shot found the net.
A change was made by either side at half time, with Craig Hignett replacing Blackmore for the hosts, and Shaun Cunnington replaced Brian Atkinson for Sunderland, and it took less than a minute for Cunnington to make his first contribution. Unfortunately, it had no bearing on the scoreline, but it did see him rewarded with a yellow card for a thunderous challenge on Robson, that on another day might have seen the ref pull out a red.
It was the same again in terms of the pattern of the game after the break, however, and it was Russell once again who just needed to tap in from close range, after a mix up between Pearson and keeper Alan Miller, to double the lead ten minutes into the second half.
The turning point was when Gary Owers had a gilt-edged chance from close range to put the game to bed, but his effort was saved by Miller, which somehow made up for his earlier mistake.
With around ten minutes left on the clock, winger Alan Moore pulled one back for Robson’s side to reduce the deficit to one, and moments later the game was level when from a corner, Pearson climbed highest to head the ball into the net and set up a grandstand finish.
In the closing minutes it was Boro who had the best chance to take maximum points when Scottish striker John Hendrie missed an absolute sitter that would have made it 3-2. But it remained 2-2 as Sunderland recorded their fifth draw in the opening six games.
Sunday 11th September, 1994
Middlesbrough 2-2 Sunderland
[Moore 79’, Pearson 81’ - Russell 38’, 54’]
Sunderland: Norman, Kubicki, Ball, Melville, Ord, Owers, Atkinson (Cunnington), Ferguson, Russell (Mi. Gray), Goodman, P. Gray Substitute not used: Chamberlain
Middlesbrough: Miller, Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Fleming, Pollock, Blackmore (Hignett), Robson, Moore, Wilkinson, Hendrie Substitutes not used: Roberts, Mustoe