Swindon Town v Sunderland AFC flashback: Eight goals, 10 men and an inspired performance from a lifelong Black Cats fan

A bogey team, red card, on the wrong side of eight goals and an inspired performance from a lifelong Black Cats fan.
Sunderland legend Gary Bennett.Sunderland legend Gary Bennett.
Sunderland legend Gary Bennett.

Sunderland hope to avoid a repeat of one of their craziest modern-day games when they return to Swindon Town’s County Ground on Saturday.

It was September 1991 when Denis Smith’s side, clad in the same bold away strip they would wear in the FA Cup final under his successor Malcolm Crosby the following May, travelled to take on Glenn Hoddle’s Robins.

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But Sunderland would return to Wearside with a seriously bloody nose.

It was the first meeting of the sides since the 1990 Division Two play-off final when an Alan McLoughin strike - via a cruel deflection off Gary Bennett - saw Swindon win 1-0.

Yet Bennett himself is convinced the beating Sunderland took in the West Country 16 months later was still an act of vengeance.

Following their Wembley victory, Swindon were found guilty of financial irregularities, and Sunderland were gifted a place in the top flight.

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“Swindon beat us in the play-offs at Wembley, but I think the game was a chance at revenge for them since we were promoted instead,” says Bennett.

“I remember it was very end-to-end, with Micky Hazard scoring two and Gary Owers scoring one as well.

“But we reached the FA Cup final that season, so I think that the cup run overshadowed our league games!”

There was no overshadowing Sunderland-born Hazard that day, though.

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The former Tottenham and Chelsea midfielder produced an assist in each half as well as his goals, with Swindon going in at half-time 3-0 up thanks to two rare Tony Norman goalkeeping errors, and Bennett then conceding a penalty – converted by Hazard - after Owers had made it 3-1.

Marco Gabbiadini scored from an Owers cross 20 minutes from time to give Sunderland hope, but a second yellow card for Owers and Duncan Shearer’s 90th-minute volley rendered Gordon Armstrong’s last-gasp long-range strike a mere consolation.

Despite his lifelong allegiance to Sunderland, Hazard had no regrets – then or now – over putting them to the sword.

And no recriminations, either, from his red and white relatives.

“I had no stick off my family,” Hazard says.

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“They love Sunderland, but would still rather I score the winner against them. Blood is thicker than the team.

“It’s always great to perform well against your home team as you don’t want to let your family down. I’ve been quite lucky in that respect.”

Defeat at Swindon plunged the Black Cats into a lower mid-table position that they failed to escape from before Smith was sacked in late December.

And although they are at an even lower ebb now, Hazard is confident his hometown club will make it third time lucky this season in getting out of the third tier.

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“I think Sunderland have a fantastic chance of going up and certainly need to,” he says.

“They are way too big a club to be playing in the lower leagues but ultimately you are where you deserve to be.

“It’s a shame, as it really is a great club with a lovely stadium and fantastic support.”

But while Bennett – who covers Sunderland home and away in his BBC Radio Newcastle commentary role – does not predict another goal-fest on Saturday, he is expecting the Robins to provide a test.

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Sunderland will be forced into a defensive reshuffle due to Tom Flanagan’s suspension, and his natural replacement – summer signing Arbenit Xhemajli – picking up a knee injury on international duty with Kosovo.

“It should be an interesting game,” Bennett says. “We are on a good run of clean sheets but we’ll be forced into a few changes.

“So it may be a challenge.”

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