Joe Boyle swallows hard and thinks back to 1993, when Terry Butcher brought his own brand of English traditions to the Sunderland hot seat
Though the recent triumph over Newcastle has created a mood of benevolence among Sunderland supporters, rancour has been a more predominant tone this season. Astonishingly, some people believe Peter Reid has taken the club as far as he can and want him out.
Those who are more temperate will have none of it and, as key evidence, make reference to May 8, 1993. Almost exactly 20 years after their FA Cup final win over Leeds, Sunderland needed to win at Notts County to ensure their survival in the First Division. Needless to say, we were 3-0 down before the PA had finished announcing the team line-ups and praying that Cambridge United and Brentford would both lose as well. They did, we stayed up, celebrated feebly and then settled into a deep bout of fury.
It was a fury impressively shared by the manager, who at least took no pleasure from the escape. The club would be stripped of the dead wood over the summer, he pledged. Never would the supporters have to suffer such indignity again. As battle cries went, it was impressive. But then, Terry Butcher always was master of the grand gesture. The picture of him bandaged and bloodied in an England shirt remains football’s equivalent of Churchill’s V for Victory. Sadly, as a manager he wasn’t as good at the small gesture, like ensuring that his players knew how to trap the ball. Or ensuring that in your first game in charge you don’t lose 1-0 at home to Swindon.
Sunderland in the mid Nineties was a graveyard. Supporters were disillusioned that the club had not capitalised on promotion to the Premiership on the back of Swindon’s misdemeanours, depressed by an increasingly under-populated ground that was running to seed and despairing at the lack of quality on the pitch. In that sense, Butcher was unlucky. It was the wrong club at the wrong time. He became manager, replacing Malcolm Crosby, simply by dint of being a respected big-name player and because the board had neither the wit nor inclination to search actively for a more suitable replacement.
In the euphoria that accompanies these moments, the fact that he had been a whopping great flop as boss of Coventry was glossed over. His advocates pointed instead to his playing career at Sunderland (38 games in the 1992-93 season) which had revealed him as still strong, astute and totally committed, as if these facts alone were evidence of managerial nous.
In reality, he didn’t have a clue. The football was dire, the team played without shape and the men Butcher chose to favour suggested he was a terrible judge of character. Chief culprit was Bobby Ferguson, Butcher’s coach. It is a sign of real plight when football fans call not merely for the head of the manager, but also for the head of the coach. “We are the Ferguson haters,” was the most vociferous chant we could muster on that awful afternoon at Meadow Lane. Ferguson was a sour little man, with an entrenched view of the game that turned Roker Park into a no-man’s land. We loathed Butcher for having brought him in.
As for the players he signed, Butcher had us thumbing our Soccer Who’s Who to discover the merits of the quartet that arrived in the summer: Phil Gray, John Colquhoun, Derek Ferguson and Ian Rodgerson. We didn’t find many. Before the season started, in a near catastrophic moment symbolic of Butcher’s reign, they were involved in a car crash that incapacitated them all, nearly blinded Gray for life and proved grist to the doom-mongers’ mill. Less traumatic but equally symbolic was the fact that Phil Gray joined his namesakes Michael and Martin at the club. Never was a colour more appropriate. The headline hunters did not need to break sweat.
Supposedly more sinister were the players Butcher chose not to have around him. Dark rumours emerged that he wouldn’t have any Catholics in the side, a remnant of his Rangers days, and they reached a pitch with the inexplicable offloading of Anton Rogan, a dependable and popular Irish full-back.
By mid-November 1993 he was gone, on the back of a six-match losing streak that culminated in a 2-0 defeat at home to Southend. Roker Park rose to applaud our chief tormentor that day, Stan Collymore, as he left the pitch. It was an accolade Butcher was never to receive.
From WSC 167 January 2001. What was happening this month