LAST Saturday’s home game against Millwall should have been the happiest of occasion for Sunderland. They pulled in their biggest League gate for 13 months, staged a second half burst to grab a 2-0 win, and extended their unbeaten sequence in League and Cup to seven games.
But the bigger crowd, attracted by recent performances and by the arrival of big John Hughes from Crystal Palace, were left with a sense of disappointment over the newcomer’s contribution, without knowing that there might be an explanation.
Big John knew from the first 30 seconds, however, that he would not be able to do himself justice. That was how long it took Millwall’s transferlisted midfield man, Dennis Burnett to get in his tackle and while he was being lectured by the referee, Big John was counting the cost of a knee injury which had him limping along at half pace for the rest of the game.
The sad news is that the damage caused will probably keep him out of action for a month and leaves Sunderland to fight though an important February programme without the services of the man recruited to add power and experience to their attack.
The injury was a blow to the player and a disappointment to the crowd. But from a club point of view the man who feels the pinch most is Manager Bob Stokoe, because he had placed great store upon an immediate uplift in attack from the arrival of a player with Hughes’s skills.
As in the case of David Young and Ron Guthrie, both of whom have the top-class experience to go into a fresh set-up and pay their way right from the start, Mr Stokoe was sure that the pay-off from the modest investment in Hughes would be quick and inspiring.
Instead, he now has to plan afresh for a series of games which can have a big effect upon the immediate situation. It would well be that the opportunity will arise for John Lathan, available for transfer and already interesting several clubs, to prove that he can add to the form which had installed him as the club’s leading scorer until Dennis Tueart took over last week.
Hindsight on the Hughes injury provides some explanation of the reason why Sunderland laboured for so long without profit against a capable Millwall side. In fact, the starting formation was largely undisturbed throughout the first half and it was not until the second half that the team picked up enough power to take charge.
One of the biggest factors here was the lively work in midfield of Mick Horswill, who moved forward with such determination that he was able to play a vital part in commanding a swing in the tide of events.
This youngster had been groomed for so long as a back four player and had distinguished himself in an unbroken run since taking over from Martin Harvey, that there may have been misgivings when it was decided to let him spread his wings a little in midfield.
He has answered this call just as decisively as he did last season when he was brought into the side for his first taste of League football against Preston NE at Deepdale.
It has been all progress since then. He has polished his game in a hard school and there is probably still a of polishing to do. But it is a big bonus to Sunderland to have a player with his capabilities on hand ... and he will not be celebrating his 20th birthday until next month.
Maturity will surely present him as a very good player indeed and there will be increasing benefit to Sunderland all the way as he adds the finishing touches to his game.
When Mr Stokoe sat through his first game three days after taking over as manager and saw the team which caretaker-manager Billy Elliott had selected beaten 1-0 by Burnley he was philosophical about it. “Too good a start might have made things difficult later on, but I’m happy with what I saw” he said.
Since then Sunderland have played through a programme of 19 games at League, reserve and youth team levels without defeat and have claimed 14 wins and five draws.
The credit for that does not belong entirely to him, of course, for much of the spadework which made it possible had already been done under the direction of manager Alan Brown before he arrived. But the sequence in itself tells of how well his staff and players are working for him.
And it is particularly pleasing that, as he forecast, the steady rise in first team form is being maintained in the second half of the season.
The big topic in the last few weeks has been the FA Cup, with a peak moment anticipated in this afternoon’s game against Reading.
Hand-in-hand with this has been increasing interest in the youth teams challenge of the FA Youth Cup. After three decisive wins over Barrow, Rotherham United and Preston NE they had to fight hard for their fourth round win over Huddersfield Town.
That success has landed them a plum tie in the quarter-final, for they have home advantage over Chelsea, who handed out a 5-0 thrashing to Stoke City, Middlesbrough’s conquerors, in midweek.
Story taken from the Football Echo on February 3 1973.