I’ll never forget the summer of the 93-94 season. It is probably, more than anything else, the period that prepared me, and countless other teens for the years to come. The false dawns. The fading hope. The horrendous away performances that would become only too familiar.
It had been a couple of years since my father had passed away and being at that awful age when the last thing you want is to be considered ‘different’ by your peers, I was experiencing a lot of problems at school. Nobody knew really, apart from my family. I didn’t talk about the tremendous sense of loss that I’d suffered or how affected I was. But the problem was there.
Counselling didn’t cut it. Nor did the unconditional love and support from my family. I was lost and it was not uncommon for me to cry myself to sleep. I needed something to cling to. A focus. A distraction from my painful existence.
And then along came Terry.
Butcher that is. Having signed for Sunderland under the reign of Malcolm Crosby, he was appointed to replace the permed one in February 93 (after a month or two of the most cringe-worthy antics ever seen – waving and getting the crowd going after games) and was in charge as we stumbled to safety that season.
But the pre-season that followed was what I needed. The expectation that things were going to be different. Butcher brought in new signings and a new backroom staff. It seemed that all Butcher needed was a clean slate. A summer to get his own boys in and start building an empire. A new target every night in the Echo and for once, no mention of Iain Wilson, the swimmer who for years had taken up the back pages ahead of transfer speculation!
I threw myself into football….and all things Sunderland AFC. Every day of the school holidays started with an alarm to wake me nice and early. I’d get my paper round out of the way (after a thorough check of all the tabloids for SAFC related news) and then head home to prepare for the next, and most important part of the day.
Myself, Michael, Johnson and James would meet on Sea Road and get on the number 6 ‘Catch-a-bus’ service to South Shields. It took just ten minutes and cost only 15p. We would then exit the bus in a council estate in Whitburn and make the sometimes frightening walk to The Charlie Hurley centre to watch our heroes train. Michael, being a couple of years older, would often try to mingle with the old blokes to obtain news or rumour regarding transfers. Back then, rumour was enough to keep you going for a good week or so.
Myself, Johnson and James would wait patiently for news whilst watching messrs Ball, Goodman, Rogan and co. perform their magic just a few yards away from us.
All the noises Butcher made were positive. His signings even more so. Phil Gray, in particular had been attracting numerous top-flight clubs thanks to his impressive form for Luton Town. Midfield playmaker Derek Ferguson, of whom his agent said ‘In two years time, Derek will make Sunderland a healthy profit’ turned heads north of the border when he signed from Hearts. Highly rated centre back, Andy Melville from Oxford Utd was another that was courted by many but chose Butcher’s revolution. Things were looking good.
The free transfer signing of Alec Chamberlain to replace the ageing Tony Norman was also thought to be a shrewd move and snapping up Ian Rodgerson on a tribunal from Birmingham City was considered ‘great business’ by coach Iain Atkins who said that Rodgerson was the ‘best crosser in the league’.
Everything was heading in the right direction. Sunderland were back. And Championship Manager had just become a huge part of our lives. Straight from training to Michael and James’ house to spend roughly eight hours pretending to be a transfer maestro like Butcher. Happy days.
Then, on the eve of the season that promised so much…..Derek Ferguson managed to mistake Sunderland for the United States of America and drove his car around a round-a-bout the wrong way, causing a nasty crash. The main problem being that four of Butcher’s five summer signings were in his car at the time. Phil Gray and Ian Rodgerson would not play for months (Rodgerson seemingly losing the ability to cross a ball as well) and Butcher’s plans left in tatters as Lee Howey and Shaun Cunnington were required to stay in the side.
Things didn’t really pick up again after that incident, and Butcher was relieved of his duties later that year with the club once again battling relegation in the second tier of English football. A far cry from the expectation of the summer, when it seemed that the Premier League was only a year away.
It would be fair to say that the summer of 93 helped me to cope with my dad’s passing as it gave me optimism and something to focus my passion on. Something that I had not had in the year or so before. So for that, Terry, I have two words for you. Thank you.
For Ian Rodgerson and Derek Ferguson…..I have another two.