After a season of consolidation back in Division Two, we were cautiously optimistic about what lay ahead. Denis Smith was building a decent, attacking team that was focused on youth with a smattering of old heads – and the season before, we’d strengthened significantly with the arrival of Welsh international keeper Tony Norman.
Norman quickly demonstrated just what a difference an excellent keeper can make, and with him keeping the ball out at one end and the exciting talent of Marco Gabbiadini at the other, we were in relatively good shape approaching the new season.
The summer didn’t see as much transfer activity as we do today – the ‘window’ only shut for a couple of months or so, from late March until the season’s end, so the mad scramble for reinforcements wasn’t as pronounced as it is today.
As a consequence of that, only left-back Paul Hardyman was a debutant for Sunderland as we took on Swindon Town at the County Ground in the season’s opener.
Hardyman was out of contract at Fratton Park, but in these pre-Bosman days, the club still owned the player’s registration, so a fee either had to be agreed or a tribunal would settle it.
Denis Smith lowballed at £75,000, John Gregory aimed high with double that, and the tribunal settled somewhere in the middle – with £130,000 heading to Portsmouth. Fortunately, it wasn’t higher. That transfer accounted for the vast majority of the summer budget, with Smith having to shelve plans to bring in Shrewsbury playmaker Bernard McNally.
Left-back had been a problem position during Smith’s two years at the club. Reuben Agboola, Frank Gray, Alan Hay and even John Kay had been deployed there at various points – Birmingham’s John Frain was perennially linked but never ended up at Roker Park – so it wasn’t a surprise to see Smith prioritise Hardyman’s transfer.
A new name in the Swindon line-up was Ossie Ardiles. The recently-turned 37-year-old Argentine had made a handful of appearances for Blackburn and QPR after being released by Spurs at the end of the 87-88 season and had been appointed player-manager in place of the West Ham-bound Lou Macari.
Ossie was a class player in his days, and he was confident he still had it on the field as well as off it.
The way I’m feeling now, people will see a lot of me, but I’ll have to pick my times.
We will play a mixture of styles, you can’t change overnight. This is English football.
Ardiles started on the bench for Swindon, while his former Spurs teammate Tony Galvin started on the wing. Upfront for Sunderland alongside Gabbiadini was Eric Gates, who, at 34, was preparing for what he envisaged to be his last season as a pro. (He had evidently reckoned without the pull of Carlisle.)
Gates had been in and out of the side the year before, with Billy Whitehurst and then Thomas Hauser, often preferred to partner Marco. But an injury to Hauser had opened the door for him to start the season in the first team.
I’ve got the shirt now, and I intend to keep it. I’ll be doing my best to keep Thomas out permanently. Just because it is my last season doesn’t mean I’m going to coast through it.
At this stage of my career, every game is a bonus. My ambition was always to play until I’m 35, which I will be when my contract runs out next June, and it’s something to be proud of.
And it was Gates who got Sunderland’s season off to the best possible start, putting the lads ahead after only 17 minutes from the edge of the box after Armstrong's surging run.
However, things could have taken a turn when skipper Gary Bennett was forced off with a first-half injury – John Cornforth replaced him from the bench, with Agboola slotting in alongside John MacPhail.
It took some excellent form from Tony Norman to keep Swindon at bay as Swindon settled into the game – but things turned only a minute after halftime, as Fitzroy Simpson was given a second yellow card. Both were for dissent – in fact, of Swindon’s six yellows, five were for dissent. For those of us old enough to remember the way the Argentinian national team surrounded the refs in those days, it was hardly a surprise. The final yellow was dished out to Ardiles himself, who’d come on just after halftime and refused to get his wall back ten yards in the game’s final stages.
By then, Gates had been involved in the move to set up young sub Warren Hawke to seal the game from the bench with his first – and only – goal for the club, and the season had gotten off to the best possible of starts.
After the opening day setback, however, Ardiles did a brilliant job that season for Swindon. A diamond formation in midfield and attacking, attractive football led the club to its highest-ever finish of fourth in Division Two – which. of course, meant the playoffs.
Ossie was going to be trembley at Wembley once again...