RR: Hi Thomas, How’s it all going? What are you up to these days?
TH: I’m living and working in Switzerland, in Basle, now, after spending eight years in Holland. I have nothing to do with football any more, although I did train an amateur team for a year and a half. I decided to give that up due to work pressures. It was still nice to be involved, but for me the priority is the paid job.
RR: Of course, but you were involved in football from a young age?
TH: Yes, I played for my hometown until I was 16 and then joined FC Basel for a year in the youth team. The next season they put me into first team selection, even though I was only 17. I was a talented player - that’s what they said!
RR: FC Basel are a well-known side – currently second in the Swiss Super League - and you did well for them in the Eighties...
TH: Yes, I was part of the team that won the Uhrencup twice (1983 and 1986) and scored more than 30 goals in all competitions. I scored quite a number but I was a bit weak on injuries and I had a lot of muscle problems after a run of 7 or 8 games, a bit like Arjen Robben.
RR: You left them when they were relegated?
TH: I left at the end of the 1987/88 season, when FC Basel went down. The players were quite good, but it didn’t fit well together. The manager - Urs Siegenthaler - his style was a bit ahead of his time - he’s now the chief scout of the German national team. The training was full of laughter, but he had new ideas that were completely different.
I joined BSC Old Boys as they’d just come up. I was with them for six months and I was in touch with some German sides, but they wanted to watch me for a few more months. Then Sunderland stepped in. My agent said Sunderland had contacted him to arrange a trial. I was lucky enough to come over for a week.
RR: You were perhaps a typical English-style centre-forward, with your physique and approach, so was English football a good fit for you?
TH: I was a big fan of English football with the fans and the crowds, and I’d always watched it when I was young. It was dream come true to get the trial.
RR: It must have gone well as Sunderland paid £200,000 for your services...
TH: Yes, and I made my Sunderland debut against Hull City in February 1989. I came on as substitute for Marco. I started my first game against Chelsea in March, when we lost 2-1 at home. I scored my first goal at Oldham in April, when we drew 2-2, and I scored a week later, at home to Shrewsbury, when we won 2-1.
RR: Was it easy to settle, or did you feel a little bit on your own in a new country?
TH: No, I didn’t feel alone. From the beginning I knew I could adjust very well to the English game and the English culture. I fitted well into that and perhaps better than France or something. I learnt the language easily too. I didn’t feel anything different, or exotic, or anything!
RR: Hopefully the lads made you feel welcome. Are there any you’re still in touch with?
TH: Kaysie was a nice lad and Benno was very funny, always telling jokes in the dressing room. I got on well with Reuben Agboola and Colin Pascoe. We lived close together and got on very well. I went to Holland for half a season after I left Sunderland, and lost a bit of touch with the players. Social media has made it easier to keep in touch.
RR: Did you have a good relationship with Denis Smith?
TH: Yes, I always had a good relationship with Denis. He was a very nice man and nice character. He gave the opportunity to play for such a great club so I was always thankful. I understood his choice of Eric and Gabbers too.
RR: You had some competition from that Gates-Gabbiadini partnership – how tough was it to break into the side?
TH: Yes, I played in the second division. The problem was always to get more games as the partnership Marco had with Gatesy made it difficult for me to get between that partnership. Marco preferred to play with Eric as he brought him into the game and Marco was the finisher. I was the finisher too, so that didn’t fit very well.
RR: You are in the Sunderland history books as scoring the last goal of the Eighties and the first in the Nineties!
TH: Yes, I scored the equaliser at home to Port Vale and then within six minutes of coming on at Hull on New Year’s Day.
RR: In the 1989/90 season, though, you had a big hand in getting the club into the play-off spot...
TH: It was good to play in a number of games and I scored some important goals. I scored a few times in the December and January and in consecutive games in February. I remember I scored twice when we beat Brighton 2-1. I think I scored six times in all that year and I played in 26 matches.
RR: How was that experience? I understand you were the first German to play club football at Wembley?
TH: I was the first outfield German player to play at Wembley, yes. I was also the first non-British born player to represent Sunderland at Wembley.
The preparation for the final – we went to Menorca - was not the best after the season and we just didn’t have a good day, apart from Tony Norman. Maybe the pressure was too big for the team. In any final, it always comes down to who performs on the day.
The experience, though, was amazing. To come to the big games on the coach was incredible and then walking onto the pitch with the huge Sunderland following in the corner when we came out. And to come on as substitute was great, when I replaced Eric. Just a pity we couldn’t win.
I heard in the summer break that we were going up anyway! It was a roller-coaster.
RR: Eric had left the club that summer, so this was going to be your time. What went wrong?
TH: Denis said my time was coming. He told me that they play more football in Division One and it was not as hard, physically, as the year before. Denis said he had great hopes for me.
We played Bristol City in the League Cup early in the season and I picked up a bad injury.
In September we played the first game at Roker Park and we lost 1-0. We went down there for the second leg a few weeks later and won 6-1. We went through easily and I scored. Gabbers got two, Bally, Gary Owers and Tony Cullen got the others. But then I snapped my Achilles in that cup game against Bristol City.
That was almost the end of my season. This was a big injury and it took months for me to come back. In fact, I don’t think I ever fully recovered from that injury to be able to play as I had done before.
RR: You still had time to enter the record books again!
TH: Yes, I came back for the last games and I was lucky to play a few games in division one which is good for the record.
I was also the first German to score in the top flight, when I scored against Southampton in the April.
RR: You had a bit of a run in the autumn after relegation but didn’t feature too heavily before moving to Holland in 1992. What lay behind that?
TH: I wasn’t involved in the opening game but I did play in the next five. And I started the League Cup game against Huddersfield where I scored my final goal. It was in the same cup competition as the previous year where I picked up another bad injury.
I hurt my right leg this time. My Achilles injury against Bristol was my left. This was another really bad injury which took 12-14 stitches. I went up into the air with their defender and he sliced my Achilles down to my heel as he came down. It was a really bad cut, with inflammation.
Denis changed things around whilst I was injured and sold Marco. New players came in as a result - Goodman came in, and Byrney.
The injuries, particularly the one against Bristol City, were the end of my career, really. I always played with pain – I couldn’t walk down the stairs after training and after some games. It was difficult – pain on both sides now. People don’t know how bad it was!
Sunderland fans at the time didn’t realise I couldn’t play on that level anymore. I just tried my best to get through but realised I was not the quickest and I lost pace since I snapped my Achilles. I couldn’t jump properly anymore. I played ok but the pain was not good after the games.
My last game was Boxing Day, 1991, when I came on against Tranmere Rovers.
Then Denis left and Malcolm Crosby came in. Other players came through too - David Rush, a favourite of Crosby’s from youth team, and Warren Hawke came up. That all made it harder. I watched the cup run whilst recovering from injury and I was doing rehab at Lilleshall. I watched a lot with the fans in the stands. I was still a part, but frustrated watching from the stands.
RR: There was, of course, a very public court case in the mid-Nineties that related to the injury you picked up at Bristol...
TH: I made some inquiries cos I’d never had an Achilles injury before. It was a strange injury. Against Bristol I had an ankle strap which was extremely tight. I said to Steve Smelt a few times it was too tight but he said just keep going it’ll loosen up. Afterwards he should have put a new strap on.
It was probably a contributing factor to why I had to retire. The doctor I spoke to said the strap had probably caused the problem and why the Achilles had snapped. Normally you have problems before such an injury, with inflammation or associated problems, but I’d never had any pain and no signs. It was difficult.
People thought the case was about money but for me it was the end of my career.
RR: I’m sorry it ended so badly for you, but hopefully your look back with positive memories too?
TH: Yes, good memories of Sunderland. I am really thankful for the opportunity. I’m still very interested and my heart is still in the club. I can’t get over as much as I’d like, though.
The fans maybe turned a bit because of the pace I lost and my ability in the air faded, but they didn’t know the seriousness of my injury. I always loved to play for the supporters and I always wanted to do my best. It’s still a pain in my heart that I didn’t do better or score more goals because I loved the fans.
RR: I’m glad you still look out for us, as a fan, but it’s a tough time right now...
TH: My time was completely opposite of today’s players. I wanted to do my best for the fans and didn’t want to disappoint them. I always felt bad when I missed a chance or didn’t play well. In these days it’s more about the money than going onto the pitch to do well for the club or the supporters. The character has changed amongst the players.
RR: Is that peculiar to England, with the Premier League, do you think?
TH: All of football has gone that way. I think most of the players are not English anymore in the Premier League. Look at Man City – maybe one or two? I think it is the case all over Europe.
RR: So what happened after you left Sunderland in ’92?
TH: I signed for a club in Holland, SC Cambuur. They were my last professional club. I was carrying on with my rehab and they gave me a chance. They had watched me playing in a tournament with Sunderland, the year before and had made an enquiry. At the time but the fee was too high, but my agent contacted them and they were still interested despite my injury. I was very lucky to sign for them, but it didn’t come right anymore. I always had pain and also in training, so I couldn’t perform at that level.
I met a girl in Holland, so I stayed there, but mentally it was tough and I didn’t speak the language so it was hard. I had my daughter there but now I’m in the sales business. It’s going well and I’m in charge here and doing good business.
I still look out for Sunderland though.