Recently relegated and with new manager/managing director Lawrie McMeneny looking to drastically alter the profile of his squad, it was inevitable that Sunderland would see a raft of changes during 1985-86.
Famed at Southampton for his successful policy of bringing in tried and tested professionals for one last hurrah, McMenemy attempted to repeat the formula at Roker Park – with striker Dave Swindlehurst one of the first purchases to arrive.
At 29, the London-born forward was not quite at the veteran stage of his career, but with more than 450 appearances under his belt he was certainly an old hand.
Experience was presumably what Sunderland were after then when they brought Swindlehurst in from West Ham United 37 years ago today, with assistant manager Lew Chatterley excitedly telling the Daily Mirror that he was “just what we’ve been looking for and we’re delighted to get him.”
The following morning’s edition claimed that a fee of £60,000 was paid, although other sources have suggested the cost was nearer to £80,000. Either way, it represented a decent slice of the figure Sunderland received for Chris Turner, whose move to Manchester United had been concluded on the same day as the Swindlehurst transfer when an independent tribunal finally set his price at £275,000.
The amount was significantly lower than the £400,000 McMeneny had valued the goalkeeper at, and his luck continued to be out when he saw his side, including Swindlehurst, losing a friendly at Darlington that evening.
Even worse, his new striker then scored an own goal in the next pre-season match three days later at Aston Villa, but at least he was getting some minutes into his legs having endured an injury-hit campaign at Upton Park in which he had only started 8 first team matches – the last time he’d played the full 90 being on Wearside in April.
Any doubts over his fitness were put to bed as he started the first 13 games of the McMenemy era. The team started dreadfully, however, with an infamous dry spell seeing the Lads go five games without scoring – still their worst run in front of goal at the beginning of a season.
It was Swindlehurst that broke the drought though, heading home just before half time against Grimsby Town and scoring again later as the side came from behind to earn a 3-3 draw.
Eric Gates got Sunderland’s other goal that afternoon, and it was that pairing that initially seemed to be McMenemy’s first choice strike partnership. With Gates looking to find space, it was the bustling Swindlehurst that had to do the lion's share of the graft – that was until he was replaced first by Paul Lemon and then Ian Wallace during the run-in.
Sunderland only just survived another relegation by the skin of their teeth, but with Swindlehurst restored to the starting lineup at the start of 1986-87 things started well. He scored in an opening day win at Huddersfield Town, whilst vital strikes in matches against Stoke City and Reading helped the team reach the promotion play-off spots in late October.
Things soon began unravelling however and as the side once again hurtled towards the danger zone McMeneny was forced to act. His answer was to bring in an established name once again and the subsequent arrival of Keith Bertschin saw Swindlehurst moving into a midfield role.
The manager’s next major act was to flee in the dead of night – apparently without even the courtesy of letting his fellow board members know – following a defeat to Sheffield United in which Swindlehurst became the last Sunderland player to score under him just as he has been the first.
The unfamiliar midfielder played quite well in that position under caretaker manager Bob Stokoe, yet he was pushed back up front for the fateful relegation play-offs against Gillingham that saw the club sink to Division Three. McMenemy’s inability to change tact once it became clear his ideas were not working had cost Sunderland dear, and he’d left the club without enough time for even Stokoe to do anything about it.
Swindlehurst would soon follow the man that had bought him to Sunderland through the exit door, albeit on much more amicable terms. McMenemy later suggested that continuing acrimony between some of the shareholders was one of the reasons he failed at Roker, but whilst it cannot be denied that things were far from rosy behind the scenes his excuse didn’t wash with many, and most of the blame was therefore apportioned to him.
Whether his signings may have thrived more under a different regime is hard to say, but with Swindlehurst’s contact expiring anyway and successor Denis Smith wanting to freshen things up, the two parties went their separate ways.
A cap at both U21 and B level, Swindlehurst evidently had a fair bit of quality about him. Whilst not a prolific scorer he was honest and hardworking, but ultimately his time with the Lads will always be associated with some miserable memories.
Born: Edgware, 6 January 1956
Blackburn Rovers 2 (Patterson 67, Quinn 87)
Canon League Division Two, Roker Park 17 August 1985
Final SAFC appearance:
Sunderland 4 (Gates 17, 22, Bennett 88, Bertschin 108)
Gillingham 3 (Pritchard 3, Cascarino 58, 93)
Today League Division Two play-off, Roker Park 17 May 1987
Total appearances/goals for SAFC: