MANAGER Alan Brown and his players are confident that they can press a winning challenge for promotion this season and are determined that no effort will be spared towards that end. It has all been said before, of course, and in any case it is the standard frame of mind in which to approach a new season.
But it can be said this time with a good deal more confidence than a year ago and there is no lack of evidence to prove that the swing towards better times which took shape last season has lost none of its momentum.
There has already been a reminder too of what they are up against, through they scarcely need reminding that it will be tough going all the way and they will have to hope that they can manage to steer clear of a heavy crop of injuries.
With only two games behind them fears and assessments have already been confirmed in several instances. In the opening game against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park the value to the side of Dave Watson was confirmed in his absence, just as Orient’s visit to Roker Park last week confirmed that home tasks will, in the main, consist of breaking down negative opposition, who set their signs no higher than a game-spoiling draw and take the hard line to obtain that result.
Because there is no other play of comparable stature and experience in the Sunderland attack, Watson has a vital role to play and, to his credit, he plays it with enthusiasm and fearlessness which provides benefit and opportunity for the men around him.
But it also makes him an obvious target for opposing defences and the test of this is the amount of punishment which he absorbs in the course of a game.
This is not new. Match after match last season he became a target for early attention and it would not escape notice that he was down within ten minutes of the start of last week’s game. But he knows the score and his ability to meet trouble halfway and ride the worst of it enabled him to be the club’s only ever present last season. It was ironic that he should have to miss the opening game through an injury received in a pre-season friendly.
Watson’s situation will ease as the quality of play around him improves and there are indications that this is happening on an encouraging scale. Dennis Tueart already earns the greatest respect from the opposition in open play, but it is only from set positions, when Richie Pitt, Mick McGiven and Ian Porterfield move into the danger area that opposing defenders are unable to give their undivided attention to Watson.
His haul of 13 League goals last season may be considered modest, if the view is held that the man wearing the No. 9 has no responsibility beyond goal-scoring. But Watson’s generalship is priceless, and a large proportion of the goals which Sunderland will score this season will spring from his accurate prompting ... like last week’s match-winner scored by Tueart.
Last season 12 players and one opponent contributed to Sunderland’s haul of 67 goals. Five players on duty in today’s game at Brighton hit 48 between them and there was a “Watson” touch in shaping the majority of them.
On the game spoiling tactics adopted by visiting sides, Sunderland know that they cannot use this as any excuse for the drastic falling off in attendances over the last few season. It is their responsibility to attract crowds and it is their failure to husband the means of dressing their shop window more attractively which has robbed them of the following which they used to enjoy.
First Division fare would be far more attractive than anything the Second Division has to offer, though the last season in the top sphere attracted the lowest recorded average to Roker Park. Yet the attitude of the opposition is just as important as the quality and the frustration of toiling against the negative sides is felt as keenly by the team as by the crowd.
I am quite sure that there would be an entirely different outlook among Roker supporters is the open, attacking play which is possible in away games was on offer in home games, too. They played most of their convincing football on tour last season and then found themselves losing out in the promotion race last season because they were held to seven home draws in games which they had dominated.
Cracking this problem would be a major break-though. They made it with ten minutes to spare last week. The long wait was an uncomfortable reminder of last season’s failures.
Count Sunderland in with a big promotion chance and ask anyone to name the six teams from which they must expect the strongest opposition. It is odds on that popular choice would produce the same group – Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Huddersfield Town, Millwall, Queen’s Park Rangers and Aston Villa.
Spotting anything? Consult the fixture list and you will find that Sunderland’s programme for the season includes visits to all of them in their first eight away games.
Makes one wonder what type of data the Football League feeds into the computer which produces the full list of fixtures. Surely the computer itself cannot have built-in bias!
Bobby Park, whose rapid climb towards the top was halted by a broken leg in the opening game of last season, is running in again the forecast is that it may not be too long before he is demonstrating his complete recovery.
Mr Brown tells me that Bobby is training regularly now going well. He still has his limp – the legacy of a broken leg, which is always the last after-effect to disappear – but it is due to disappear. “I have no doubt” says Mr Brown “that during the season he will be back playing as well as ever.” And that is good news for admirers who saw in this lithe, intelligent Scot a player with exciting possibilities.
Although there has been a good deal of gossip on the subject, there has not been a single approach to the Sunderland club for the services of Billy Hughes and Keith Coleman, both of whom are open to transfer at their own request.
Hughes had an outing with the Reserves on Wednesday night, when several clubs had representatives present, while Coleman had his waiting period relieved this afternoon with a late call to take over from injured Joe Bolton in the game against Brighton.
There has been an addition to the Roker staff during the week, with Gary Rowell, a 15-year-old from Seaham, swelling the list of apprentice professionals to six.
Gary, whose father, Jack, was on Sunderland’s books for six years in the 1950s, played for Northlea GS and Seaham and District Boys, but had to pull out of the Durham County side to undergo an operation. His is a midfield player in the same mould as his dad ... and a Sunderland enthusiast, too.
Story taken from the Football Echo on August 26 1972.