If you were to survey fans on who they would like to manage their club, you would be likely to get many who would want a local man, someone who knows the club and understands the passion of the supporters. It was possibly this sort of thinking that would lead to Sunderland appointing Lawrie McMenemy, and making the worst decision the club has ever made.
Sunderland fan Craig Clark, who writes for the brilliant Roker Report, tells the story, which I’m sure will be all too painful for many Mackems.
When Lawrie McMenemy took over at Sunderland, they had just suffered defeat in the League Cup final against Norwich City and lost a battle against relegation to the second tier of English football. It was 1985 and not for the first time in their once illustrious history, supporters looked ahead to a season of 2nd division football.
McMenemy arrived with the remit of returning Sunderland to former glories, the club making him the highest paid manager in the country. He came with the pedigree of a man who was capable of doing just that, having worked wonders at his previous club Southampton. He took the south coast club to their highest ever league position in the 1983/84 season, finishing second, just 3 points behind champions Liverpool. A respectable fifth place finish followed before his departure.
He was given a warm welcome by supporters but the 1985/86 season began with an appalling run of results, defeat coming in his first 5 games in charge. His first win came, finally, away at Shrewsbury Town, followed up by a home victory over Huddersfield Town. That first win at Roker Park would prove to be a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal season. So much for a return to past glories, the season ended with a fight against consecutive relegations, the club finishing a lowly 18th, a paltry 4 points above an unthinkable demotion to Division 3. Sunderland had never sunk below the second tier of English football up until this point but the highest paid manager in England had taken them close.
Worse was to follow. By the time the Gateshead born manager left the following season he had become a hate figure on Wearside, earning the moniker “Mackem-enemy”. Sunderland had won just once in the month of March, 1987 before he eventually left in April. His last game in charge was of course, a defeat, as Sunderland careered towards relegation. Bob Stokoe, another local lad, revered for that FA Cup win in 1973 could not stop the rot and after losing a relegation play off against Gillingham on goal difference, Sunderland would host third tier football for the first and only time in their history.
False dawns have been a feature at Sunderland since their first ever relegation in 1958 but none have promised so much and delivered so little as the one overseen by McMenemy. Sunderland are no stranger to painful relegations, having twice recorded lowest ever points totals in the Premier League but even they fail to match the ignominy of plummeting to the third tier. What seemed like an inspired choice was a disastrous one. It turned into the worst decision of the club’s history, spending big on a man who delivered Sunderland’s greatest footballing shame in 134 years of existence.
I urge you to follow Craig on twitter @Craig1879