SUNDERLAND may hope that the defeat at Carlisle last week which plunged them to within one point of a relegation position will prove to be the lowest ebb of a mid-season slump which has taken all the value out of their promising start.
The general belief must be that on their average form this season they are out of place in their present position and that, even without recruiting, it should not be outside their capabilities to stage a steady climb into a more realistic place in the table.
The general view helps, because these are the people who may be persuaded to gather round the team and give support where it matters most – at the turnstiles and on the terraces.
But it is more important still that the players’ belief in themselves should not falter under current pressures and changes, which cannot fail to produce an atmosphere of uncertainty. They are the kingpins who will decide the level of prosperity or the degree of failure which is to be shaped by their on-field performances.
There are other contributions which bear upon fitness, mood and tactics, but basically they carry the club on their backs and if they lose their grip and vitality then a lot of people will be wasting their time.
At Brunton Park last week there seemed the very real danger that such an unhappy position has been reached, for the general standard of play throughout the first half was as depressing as anything they have produced this season – even the second half fold-up against Oxford United six weeks ago.
Committed onlookers – a large contingent of Sunderland supporters made the trip to Brunton Park – must have felt that they were witnessing the first signs of a break-up in a side which had been put together well enough to win high rating for skill and application on opposing grounds.
And no one would have a greater sense of being let down than caretaker-manger Billy Elliott, who has been such an important part of the off-field team which had helped to develop the side’s potential.
He must take full credit for pulling them back on to the rails in a second half which reminded everyone – and most of all themselves – that they would never have blundered into a losing position if they had applied themselves with their customary zest and heeded the pitfalls which had been pointed out to them.
Time will tell whether the game itself was the crisis in the transitional period between the change of management. The pick up was not good enough to atone for what had gone before and the penalty of defeat was not out of place. But there is character in a side which can fight back as convincingly as they did and if they got the message that they cannot afford to settle for anything less in the games which lie ahead then there may be profit from the lesson.
Six games without a win and only two points gained from the 12 at stake would be a frightening position if there was less confidence in the team’s overall ability. But it is still a very uncomfortable state of affairs which smacks of disaster, because the talk of promotion prospects only a few week ago has now swung to discussion on whether and how soon they can rise above a league placings in which they find themselves alongside relegation candidate.
And however realistic it may be to point out that they are only four points behind seventh-placed Sheffield Wednesday with two home games in hand, the fact is that the league table shows exactly how they stand with their Second Division rivals at this stage of the season.
It was unfortunate for Dave Watson that he should have to pick up the threads of centre half play again in such a game. He had problems of his own without being thrust into a defence which was seriously adrift, with even Mick Horswill losing the poise which had never previously deserted him in the 22 game run which followed his debut last season.
Watson suffered along with the rest of them, but when the balance of play swung the other way in the second half, he brought his authority to bear on the situation too, and by the finish there was a feeling of complete satisfaction over the manner in which he tackled his new task.
It was always accepted that Watson would need a run in the position to establish a line-up with his team-mates in defence. On the first showing there must be every confidence in his ability to become a key factor in the defensive system, without sacrificing his flair for more positive work, which can be turned to account from corner kicks and set positions.
He is a wholehearted player with a lot of offer and it remains to be seen whether he will eventually come up with a distinctive interpretation of the role to which he is now applying himself.
Story taken from the Football Echo on November 18 1972.