Jimmy Tarbuck joked that the Titanic and Lawrie McMenemy had one thing in common - both should never have left Southampton. After a turbulent time at Sunderland, McMenemy probably agreed.
It looked like a marriage made in heaven. A sleeping giant in the North East of England, combined with a manager who had achieved great things at his previous club. In July 1985, a Messiah rode into Sunderland promising to bring the good times back, to restore some pride to an area that definitely needed a boost.
When Lawrie McMenemy arrived in Sunderland he was greeted by back-slapping supporters, the Gateshead-born man welcomed to the club, with an atmosphere of hope surrounding his appointment. Fast forward to a little under two years later, and Sunderland fans were ready to chase him out of town.
On paper, McMenemy's achievements at Southampton made him an ideal candidate to resuscitate Sunderland. An FA Cup triumph in 1976, a League Cup final in 1979, and qualification for the UEFA Cup three times in the 1980s, including a runners-up spot to Liverpool in 1983/84, saw his stock rise, and led to an approach by Manchester United to take over from Dave Sexton in 1981. McMenemy turned the offer down, though, citing loyalty to Southampton and family circumstances as reasons. But come the mid-eighties, McMenemy was looking for a new challenge.
Resigning whilst on a tour in the Caribbean, McMenemy ended his twelve year reign at Southampton, and was immediately linked with the vacant position at Sunderland. The Roker Park outfit may have reached the Milk Cup final in 1985, yet relegation to the Second Division spelt the end for manager Len Ashurst, so when McMenemy became available, Sunderland chairman Tom Cowie was understandably excited: "McMenemy is the man for us, I would move heaven and earth to get him."
If McMenemy's appointment as manager seemed a sensible move, then the terms of his employment kicked off his regime on the wrong foot. Installed as the highest paid manager in the country in an area of such high unemployment did not sit comfortably with many supporters, who were immediately asked to stomach a 20% rise in season ticket prices (up to £108 according to the Daily Mirror). Supporters club official Billy Simmons voiced his displeasure on the matter: "This is a depressed area but it looks like we are also being asked to pay for Lawrie McMenemy's wages. Who wants to lash out these prices?"
Figures varied on the salary McMenemy was receiving - between £166,000 and £200,000 a year according to whichever paper you read - but either way, the amount was constantly used as a stick to beat McMenemy with during his time at the club. When news broke towards the end of McMenemy's tenure that the club - £700,000 in debt and with an overdraft of over £500,000 - were reportedly paying for McMenemy's house, bills and car, most fans would have happily driven him as far away as possible in his rented gold Mercedes.
The fact that McMenemy was also appointed as a managing director was questioned by many. "Unlike 90 per cent of managers I won't have to look over my shoulder and worry about the sack," McMenemy stated during the press conference on his arrival at the club. "I don't have that fear because I won't ever get the sack again." He may have been joking, yet McMenemy would find out the hard way that his dual role was far from ideal. Problems on the pitch were one thing, yet McMenemy would be involved in many rows within the boardroom that hardly helped stabilise the club.
McMenemy would later admit that the Sunderland job was a lot harder than he had originally imagined. Previously at Southampton, he had managed to blend together experienced players with youngsters, the likes of Peter Osgood, Mick Channon, Alan Ball, Kevin Keegan, Mick Mills, and Peter Shilton, providing the basis behind McMenemy's successful teams on the south coast. He would attempt to use the same approach at Sunderland, but soon discovered that the Second Division was not the place for players past their best.
"Older players know what to do on and off the field," McMenemy proclaimed, as over the first few months players such as George Burley, Alan Kennedy, Frank Gray, Dave Swindlehurst, and Eric Gates came in. Some were more successful than others, but over time it was evident that the Southampton blueprint McMenemy tried to apply at Sunderland was far from effective.
One issue McMenemy never truly resolved was a goalkeeper to replace Chris Turner, who left for Manchester United shortly after McMenemy's arrival. At Southampton, McMenemy had been lucky enough to have Peter Shilton as his last line of defence, yet after Turner's departure, Sunderland's boss struggled to settle upon a solid number one. In his spell at the club, McMenemy used six keepers - Jim McDonagh, Bob Bolder, Andy Dibble, Cameron Duncan, Bobby Mimms, and Iain Hesford - hardly a strong foundation on which to build the team.
Relegated clubs are often tipped to come straight back up, and this combined with the McMenemy effect saw Sunderland installed as favourites to make an immediate return to the top flight. "The Second Division will be enlivened by the presence of Lawrie McMenemy and his Sunderland side who I anticipate setting the standard for Alan Ball's Portsmouth, Eddie Gray's Leeds and newcomers Millwall to follow," wrote Steve Curry in the Daily Express, capturing the mood of the so-called football experts. What could possibly go wrong?
With all the fuss and furore over McMenemy's move, the last thing he needed was a poor start. So when Sunderland promptly lost their first five League matches without scoring a goal, the disastrous McMenemy era got off to the most appropriate of beginnings. The highest crowd of the season (21,202) poured through the turnstiles at Roker Park on a wave of optimism, yet the 2-0 defeat to Blackburn well and truly ruined the party. After a 3-0 loss at home to Oldham, McMenemy turned on some of his players, something that would become a recurring theme throughout his ill-fated period at the club.
"Ah well, that's August out of the way. I don't think I've got much chance for Manager of the Month," McMenemy quipped after the final defeat of the run at Millwall. McMenemy's sarcasm could not hide the fact that Sunderland's start to the season was the worst in their 106-year history, and although the run was ended with a 3-3 draw at home to Grimsby, and a 1-1 draw at Leeds, after seven matches Sunderland were rock bottom and looking more like relegation candidates than promotion favourites.
Seven wins out of the next eleven League matches at least managed to steady the ship, although even during this period things did not run smoothly for McMenemy. Knocked out of the League Cup by Fourth Division Swindon, the manager had a tea cup thrown at him in a row with striker David Hodgson, and after accusing some of his players of not earning their wages, McMenemy placed thirteen members of his squad on the transfer list.
McMenemy's revolving door selection policy was hardly conducive to improving Sunderland. Within his first year at the club, players such as Hodgson, Clive Walker, Gordon Chisholm, Shaun Elliott, Barry Venison, Nick Pickering, and Howard Gayle departed; admittedly they had been part of the relegation campaign, but many were not adequately replaced, as McMenemy struggled to find the right blend.
From December onwards, the season was an unmitigated disaster for McMenemy. A run of just two wins in seventeen saw the team plummet towards the relegation trap door, as gates began to drop - just 11,338 saw the home win over Fulham in April - and Sunderland's decline became big news. It certainly didn't help McMenemy's situation, when director Barry Batey decided to air Sunderland's dirty linen in public.
Batey was involved in a power struggle with chairman Cowie, McMenemy stuck in the middle as the two regularly clashed in boardroom meetings. Choosing to speak to the Daily Mirror about the issue, Batey spilt the beans on his relationship with Cowie, stating that the club were doomed if the current chairman remained in charge. It would be a row that rumbled on; but come the summer, Batey would launch his next attack on McMenemy.
Sunderland somehow stayed up at the end of the 1985/86 season. In the relegation zone with two matches to go, 2-0 wins over Shrewsbury and Stoke staved off the unthinkable, with McMenemy adamant that the boardroom chaos needed to be resolved, and promising Sunderland fans that they would not go through the same ordeal again. Sadly, McMenemy words would sound extremely hollow at the end of Sunderland's approaching annus horribilis.
It hardly helped that whilst assistant Lew Chatterley was putting the players through early pre-season training, McMenemy was sunning himself in Florida, leading to calls from Simmons for Sunderland's boss to give his wages back for the previous month. "To justify that sort of salary he has to get a team together - and quickly," Simmons commented, which were relatively kind words compared to the attack launched by Batey.
"I would not be sorry if he handed in his resignation tomorrow," Batey announced at a press conference in July 1986, the Sunderland director determined that if he was going to get kicked off the board then he would go out swinging from the hip. "On his record to date he has been a disaster. He is the most expensive flop this club has known. His team has served up drivel while he has been getting £100 an hour."
McMenemy responded, stating that he had no intention of quitting, admitting that his team had not been good enough and that some of his players were not living up to their reputations. Unfortunately he then delivered a final point, one that sounded crazy in 1986, and has not improved with time: "The only way I'll make a break from this club is when we win the First Division championship or the European Cup - that's how determined I am to see it through."
For a while, it did look like things were starting to get better for McMenemy. Despite a 6-1 hammering at Blackburn, Sunderland only lost one other match in their first twelve, and sat in fifth position in the table; a play-off slot under the new League system. McMenemy spoke as if all the ills of the previous season had now been cured, that the players minds were free of problems, and that he now possessed a better team than when he took over.
The team did in fact reach the play-offs; sadly, though, it would be the Division Three version (the first two seasons of the play-offs involved three teams from the lower division contesting the last league position with a team that finished just above the relegation zone in the higher league). Just one League win in November and December saw Sunderland's hopes of promotion recede, and the final chapter of McMenemy's nightmare commenced.
The last few months were a messy affair. With debts spiralling at the club, McMenemy took a pay cut rumoured to be £50,000, but by this time any goodwill the move might have created was negated. The fans had simply had enough. The rot truly set in during a terrible run of just one point in six matches during March and April. After the final defeat - 2-1 against Sheffield United in front of just 8,544 at Roker Park - the point of no return had been reached.
When the cars of McMenemy and new chairman Bob Murray were vandalised, and hundreds of fans protested after the Sheffield United loss, the duo met to discuss the way forward. McMenemy may have stated that he would never quit, but deep down he knew he was fighting a losing battle. His resignation was accepted by Murray, with McMenemy revealing in his autobiography that the Sunderland chairman had already approached Bob Stokoe anyway. An apt end to a sorry story.
McMenemy also indicated in his book that he resigned in order to give a new manager the chance to keep Sunderland up. Alas, Stokoe was unable to work any magic, as Sunderland dropped into the third tier for the first time in their history. A 3-2 defeat to Barnsley on the final day of the season - Sunderland had been 2-0 up and Mark Proctor missed a penalty - saw the team slip into the play-offs, and there was worse to come.
Another Proctor penalty miss proved damaging, as Gillingham edged Sunderland out on away goals, and a tearful Stokoe left the club, unable to arrest the slide into Division Three that had started under McMenemy. Fortunately the only way was up after their nadir, and new manager Denis Smith got Sunderland out of the third tier of English football at the first attempt. The dawn after the darkness.
McMenemy never managed another club team in England, so his last experience of management at this level was deeply unpleasant for everyone involved. Memories of his time at Sunderland still induces a reaction in supporters old enough to have lived through the turbulence. It's not hard to see why he will forever be known as Lawrie Mackemenemy on Wearside.
At the conclusion of the 'Roker Hell' chapter of his autobiography, McMenemy apologises for his contribution towards Sunderland's relegation to Division Three. "I will be eternally sorry that I played a part in that surrender. I am judged as a manager by what happens on the pitch and that was unacceptable at Sunderland." At least that is one thing that Sunderland fans and McMenemy can agree on.