In terms of hectic periods during seasons where the schedule appears relentless and the incidents are coming up thick and fast as much as the fixtures themselves, this time back in 1989 must be up there.
On this day 32 years ago, Denis Smith’s Sunderland were preparing for their 16th fixture in two months on the back of a weekend where four players were arrested by the local police following the midweek League Cup tie at Exeter City.
The fixture down in Devon against the side from Division Four was for a place in the quarter-finals of the competition, and if you want more about the game and the aftermath that involved the local Devon constabulary read on here.
Despite the backdrop of the busy schedule and brushes with the law, Sunderland were sitting in a good position in Barclays Division Two, where we were positioned 4th, just a point behind Newcastle in 3rd, three behind Leeds in 2nd and four points worse off than Sheffield United who topped the table.
It was a good start to the season as we approached the halfway point. We had finished mid-table the previous year in 11th after returning to the second tier following our brief stay in Division Three, so fans were optimistic without expecting fireworks.
It was a tough league in terms of promotion contenders where half the division were hoping to push for at least the top six and we had solidly placed ourselves among them going into the festive period – which made the fixture played out on this day back in 1989 pretty significant.
On the back of two straight league victories, at home to Plymouth and away at Brighton, we prepared for the visit of Swindon Town who were managed by Ossie Ardiles, who in his first managerial position had transitioned from player-manager to manager at the beginning of the season.
The reverse fixture at the County Ground on the opening day of the season was the ex-Spurs legend’s penultimate game as a player at 37-years-old. Denis Smith’s side ran out 2-0 winners back in August through goals from Eric Gates and substitute Warren Hawke, but the sending-off of Swindon’s Fitzroy Simpson tilted the balance in our favour.
Although Ardiles’ side were 9th in the table, they were only six points behind us with a game in hand, which added extra significance to the encounter.
Smith went with the same starting XI that turned out at Exeter and according to the reports, we looked like a side that was paying for the recent tough schedule and looked sluggish - which resulted in Alan McLoughlin, who sadly passed away in May 2021 (he also spoke to Roker Report in October 2020 here), giving the away side the lead just before half-time.
Sunderland kept plugging away in the second half, and eventually had a lucky break with 20 minutes left on the clock. A free-kick from Gordon Armstrong from all of 25-yards out was smashed straight at the Swindon wall, and then luckily for us took a wicked deflection leaving Fraser Digby stranded.
For much of the game the away side looked the better side and just two minutes after Armstrong’s stroke of luck, Duncan Shearer restored Swindon’s lead once again, which prompted Denis Smith to change up our attacking options.
Thomas Hauser entered the field as substitute to replace Colin Pascoe as he did so on 38 other occasions (out of 69 appearances he made for the Lads), to give us a front three of Gates, Gabbiadini and Hauser for the remaining 15 minutes of the game.
As the aerial balls started to pepper the Swindon penalty area, we looked more threatening although we were appearing to run out of time as we entered the final minute of the regulation 90.
As we piled on the pressure, the ball took a couple of ricochets in the box before falling to the feet of Hauser who took a good first touch before smashing it into the back of the net to salvage a point for Sunderland.
A delighted Denis Smith was keen to praise the £200,000 signing from Old Boys:
I keep saying he’ll score goals and he does. Some people think he’s not a good player because he’s not in the team.
Hauser himself seemed keen to play down the goal:
I didn’t hit it cleanly, I think it went through the keepers legs, I was so lucky.
Saturday 2nd December, 1989
Barclays League Division Two
Sunderland 2-2 Swindon Town
[Armstrong 70’, Hauser 89’ - McLoughlin 41’, Shearer 72’]
Sunderland: Carter, Agboola, Bennett, Ord (Kay), Hardyman, Owers, Atkinson, Armstrong, Pascoe (Hauser), Gates, Gabbiadini
Swindon Town: Digby, Kerslake, Gittens, Calderwood, Bodin, MacLaren, Jones, Foley (Cornwell), McLoughlin, White (Simpson), Shearer