Roker Reflections: Attraction maintained at league level, too

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THERE is mounting belief that Sunderland, under the direction of Manager Bob Stokoe, are at the starting point of a surge which will bring success and crowd appeal in increasing measure and restore the big time atmosphere which fits Roker Park so well.

Only a fortnight ago there was a foretaste of how attractive this can be, with a big turn-out for the F.A. Cup Replay against Notts County. And there will surely be another helping next week, when Charlie Hurley brings his Reading side to Roker Park for a Fourth Round challenge.

Maybe the Cup is a special case, for the pulling power of the national knock-out competition has always proved irresistible to North-East fans. But by breaking the two-year gap in transfer activity, which preceded his arrival to add bargain-fee signings David Young, Ron Guthrie and now John Hughes to the young and talented Roker framework he has ensured that the level of attraction will be well maintained in League fare, too.

Confirmation that Mr Stokoe is on the right track will surely come from supporters and he is said to be congratulated on the rapid extension of the team’s capabilities by an outlay of no more than £65,000 on three players.

One of his first conclusions after taking on the job was that there was a shortage of experienced players in the first team pool. This was no kick at the young players who have been fighting the club’s battles with so much spirit and promise over the last two years. But he felt that they needed time and help if they were going to fulfil themselves at top level.

With the team placed in the lower reaches of the Second Division there was a safety battle to be won. And though he was confident that there would be problems about staging a rapid climb in the second half of the season, he felt that this was not the kind of load to be imposed too consistently upon 17-year-old players like Joe Bolton, Jackie Ashurst and Jimmy Hamilton.

All three retain their high ratings and big chances will be open for them in due course. But for the moment the task is to set the success surge going and when that is in full swing there will be benefit and opportunity for all.

Over the last few weeks there have also been changes in the first team pool, starting with the tragic training accident which took Bobby Park out of action with a broken leg right at the stage where he was lined up for a first team come-back after recovering from the break which he suffered 18 months earlier.

Next to drop out of the pool was Mick McGiven, who is now recovering from a cartilage operation, and the announcement that Richie Pitt, Keith Coleman, John Lathan, Brian Chambers and Derek Forster are available for transfer opens up the possibility of further substantial reductions.

The arrival of three new players who can do a first-class job at top team level could not have been better timed, therefore, and Mr Stokoe has let it be known that the door is still open for further incoming transfers when he can line up the play – or players – whom he feels can produce the qualities which he is seeking.

Scottish reports indicate that Sunderland have been showing a lot of interest in Drew Busby, Airdrie’s live-wire striker, who was at one time a target for Newcastle United. There has been no sign of a follow up and it seems likely that Mr Stokoe will be shopping around for a while yet before he decides where to make his next strike. Nor is there any certainty that the next one will be a striker.

The capture of 29-year-old John Hughes from Crystal Palace at the bargain fee of £30,000 has been the big talking point this week. From Sunderland’s point of view it is a happy ending to a long story, for this was the third attempt to add the exciting Scot to the Roker staff.

The first attempt was made 13 years ago, when John, as a 16-year-old was spotted by Sunderland Scottish scout, Mr Tom Rutherford and Manager Alan Brown was ready to step in. But Glasgow Celtic beat him to it and John went to Celtic Park.

Then in 1965 when there was a big push to land a powerful centre forward negotiations for a deal were well advanced under the guidance of chief scout Mr Charlie Ferguson, but Manager Ian McColl decided to take no further action.

This time there was no hesitation, for within 18 hours of Mr Stokoe setting the deal in motion, John was catching a north-bound train with his mind already made up that this was where he wanted to be.

It is to be regretted that he is Cup-tied, having played for Crystal Palace in the Third Round, but as Mr Stokoe says there are still a lot of important games to be played.

Charley Hurley has given fair warning that Sunderland will have a real fight on their hands next week , when Reading will be prompted to an inspired Cup challenge at Roker Park.

There is further warning in the fact that Reading have the best defensive record in the Football League, having conceded only 15 goals in 25 games... and that is a handy record for a side which will consider it a major achievement if they can force a replay.

Reading’s defensive success is based on Hurley’s astute buying, for he recruited John Hulme, the player who replaced him as centre half with Bolton Wanderers, at a give-away fee and paid only £10,000 for Pompey’s back four player, Tommy Youlden.

These six-footers have put a lot of iron into Reading’s rearguard and they will make it tough going for Sunderland.

Story taken from the Football Echo on January 27 1973.