THE process of growing up can be very painful. Sunderland, waiting to welcome maturity in several positions, and, therefore, still growing up as a team, will long remember their painful experience in going down to their heaviest defeat for three seasons to Oxford United at Manor Road last week.
They would do well to accept the crushing experience as an essential part of their soccer education and be better prepared to meet the similar challenges which will surely come their way.
While it is accepted by neutral experts well qualified to judge that the general standard of Sunderland’s play is equal to the best in the Second Division and good enough to take them a long way in the promotion race, there would surely be a revision of those views in games where physical challenge is a primary factory.
The Second Division programme is studded with such confrontations and Sunderland have had two recent reminders on what they have to meet and overcome if they are to fulfil their promise to themselves and their supporters by claiming one of the promotion places this season.
The “clean up of soccer” campaign net is spread only as wide as the discretion of its on-field manipulators permits. Referees are individuals and it follows that there will be a variety of interpretations of the guidelines laid down for them. Some go hard on dissent and technical offences; others seem unwilling to accept that football, by its very nature is a contact sport; and there are those who appear quite unmoved by the widely-accepted need to cut out the planned destruction which is practised by soccer’s “hatchet” men.
There is, fortunately, still a sprinkling of the old-fashioned types who can pick out the bad one and know how to deal with it, without having to consider whether displeasure is falling upon a home or an away player.
With only a quarter of the season gone, Sunderland have had experience of the full range. They have been complimentary and critical in turn, but there must always be awareness that even the all-powered referee cannot be relied upon to produce all the answers to the problems which confront them when the “clogging” begins.
Until they have built a protection element into their own game they will suffer the kind of punishment which they received in the games against Huddersfield Town and Oxford United. This essential part of the growing-up process was achieved just in time when their largely home-developed team was able to withstand the buffetings well enough to gain promotion in 1963-64.
After the excellent start which they have made to their unbalanced programme, it would be tragic if their comparatively thin playing resources were stretched to breaking point by a rash of injuries. There was warning enough of how seriously the consequences could be at the Manor Road ground last week, when their form nose-dived in the second half because five of their players were so badly hurt that only token resistance could be offered.
Manager Alan Brown said afterwards: “No one should read too much into this result which ruined a good away records. We were deliberately softened up in the first half and it showed in the second, particularly in the case of Dick Malone, whose injury made him a virtually passenger.”
The loss of Malone’s exciting effort, which has made him a popular performer both home and away, was a big blow. Add to that the injuries which restricted the output of Jimmy Montgomery, Mick Horswill, Billy Hughes, and Ian Porterfield and there is some indication of the handicap under which Sunderland toiled while a game which had appeared within their grasp was ruthlessly torn away from them.
The game had its lessons, however, and if these have been digested well enough they can be turned to good account.
Sunderland could count themselves fortunate that the injury hangover from last week’s game did not last too long, though there was doubt until shortly before today’s games against Luton Town whether Billy Hughes would be able to hold his place.
They can look out for another thorough test of their durability next week, when they are due to visit promotion candidates Queen’s Park Rangers, who are one of the top-scoring sides in the Second Division.
Although beaten 2-1, this was one of Sunderland’s brightest performances last season, when they lost only six away games. And the merit which lay in their ability to be going at Rangers with a game-saving chance in the closing stages was heightened by the fact that both Jimmy Montgomery and Richie Pitt were badly injured.
Montgomery’s hair-line leg fracture kept him out for six week and Pitt was out of action for a fortnight.
If Sunderland can apply themselves well enough to claim a good result next week, this will set them up for the big heave towards the top with two home games to follow.
And if they can claim full points from their Roker Park games against Fulham and Aston Villa they should go a long way towards closing the gap between themselves and the teams which are establishing a grip on the leading position.
The right flow of results would indicate that, as has happened before, the Oxford crash had proved a spurt to set them in the right direction.
For the few hundred people who declare their interest in Sunderland’s progress at all levels by going along to watch the Reserve and youth teams in action, there is first-hand encouragement to believe that the production lines are still gainful employed.
In just over 12 months players of first team quality have been produced in Mick Horswill, Keith Coleman, Jimmy Hamilton, Joe Boulton and Jackie Ashurst and there is the assurance that there will be more to follow.
Star performers in the Reserves 4-1 win over Bradford City Reserves on Wednesday night were Jimmy Hamilton, Bobby Park and 16-year-old Peter Stronach, who was taken off with a shin injury in the 62nd minute.
Hamilton, now a six-footer with skill and developing power, scored the goal of the match and had an equally good-looking goal disallowed for an offence; Park, also a scorer and a great provider from midfield, gave a confident display which ensures that it will not be too long before he is tackling senior tasks again; and Stronach, gifted with the ability to beat his man either side, added the important qualities of finishing power and awareness in the opposing penalty area.
For good measure there was a fine performance by Matt Robson, a strongly-built youngster, whose power-packed play marks him down as a potential back four player of considerable quality.
Story taken from the Football Echo on October 14 1972.