QUALIFYING for this afternoon’s FA Cup Final against Leeds United at Wembley is the greatest achievement by any Sunderland side for the last 36 years. And its merit is enhanced by the fact that it has been achieved while holding only Second Division status.
The material rewards of this exciting performance go far beyond the comparable modest income which they will received from the nine games played in the competition.
The income itself is welcome enough, for there is still a lot of leeway to make up before the club can begin to pay its way.
But the bigger games touch upon the re-awakening of enthusiasm among supporters and the mounting belief that there is going to be a lot of excitement along the way as they mount their promotion challenge next season.
This is expressed clearly enough in the long waiting list for season tickets and the possibility of this snow-balling into a sell-out by the time that Manager Bob Stokoe has strengthened his first team pool, probably during the close season to broaden the front of his promotion drive.
The magnificent achievement in reaching Wembley stands on its own. No frills are needed to heighten the sense of pride which this has brought from everyone with a Sunderland interest at heart.
This applies particularly to Mr Stokoe and his players and to the directors and staff for the support which they have given. And there is bonus too in the warmth with which their success has ben applauded both at home and abroad.
Yet it would be wrong to write this season into the record books as the one in which Sunderland went to Wembley for only the second time in their history and overlook the tremendous strides which have been taken at the same time in putting together a pattern of play which equips them better to tackle what must always be their major target – a return to the First Division at the earliest possible moment.
Until they are back in the big time, Sunderland will continue to wear a second class label and this is quite intolerable for a club with such high ambitions.
Support for the belief that they are well and truly on their way back to the top is so hard to find that your will have to search among the records of exciting FA Cup performances to find the fact which indicates that they have been playing promotion-class football for the last five months.
But for that disastrous run of nine games without a win from October 7 to December 2, they would surely have been jousting with Burnley and Queen’s Park Rangers for a promotion place.
And if there is any suggestion that their Cup commitments have weakened their resolve in League play, then this is easily discounted.
They have two games to complete their League programmes and if they take four points from their visit to Cardiff City on Monday and their home game against Queen’s Park Rangers on Wednesday night they will climb into fourth position in the final table.
And the staring point for this surge was a spot in the table which had them above a relegation position only on goal ratio.
When a team reaches the FA Cup Semi-Final and is only one step away from Wembley there is commonly a tendency to ease off always providing they are not involved in a battle for points at one end of the table or the other.
This could well have been Sunderland’s case, for then they had no real worries over their League position. But they have continued to work at the bread-and-butter task and from 12 games since they booked their place in the Semi-Final by beating Luton Town they have taken 18 points, a level of performance which, played over a full season, would have gained them promotion as champions.
This sequence linked with the successful Cup campaign is evidence enough that Sunderland are not being too ambition in looking for a flow of results which can bring enduring success within their reach next season.
And readiness to back Mr Stokoe’s judgement in whatever recruiting drive he may have in mind adds a touch of confidence to the outlook of one-time supporters who are now flocking back in readiness to cheer them home.
Over the last 11 home League and Cup games an average of 42,850 spectators have been attracted and in any language that is a surge of interest which a lot of clubs must envy.
This has had the effect of lifting their average League attendance to 21,500 which is within easy reach of the break-even figure needed to meet runnings costs.
Sums ranging from £200,000 to £500,000 have been mentioned as being available for recruiting players. There is no official support for any such speculation but what club chairman Mr Keith Collings has said is that they will back Mr Stokoe all the way. That is the important fact.
The memorable events of this season take their place in the record books. But the events which probably mean most in the matter of team building is that in Dick Malone, Dave Watson, Richie Pitt and Ron Guthrie, they have a back four which compares favourably with the best in football.
And in Billy Hughes, Vic Halom and Dennis Tueart they have an exciting striking force which can lift them towards a lot of success when the time comes to start a fresh campaign.
The 1972-73 season will of course be remembered for the Wembley appearance. But that is only one item in a progress report which tells the story of a club coming back to life by the full development of its tremendous playing resources and the return on a mounting scale of supporters, all under the direction of Manager Bob Stokoe, who has proved himself the ideal choice for a rescue operation which was so desperately needed.
Story taken from the Football Echo on May 5, 1973.