FROM the start which they have made to the season and the high standard of form which they have shown, particularly away from home, Sunderland have convinced a lot of people that they are on course for a quick return to the First Division.
The potential is obvious enough and the output distinctly promising, but no attempt should be made to hide the fact that they will have to keep on improving at their present rate if they are to hold their place well enough to be in striking position when the pressures mount in the vital closing stages of the promotion campaign.
It necessarily follows that the onus for improvement falls more heavily upon the younger players than upon the four experienced men who are bringing their talents to bear in the drive towards the top – Jimmy Montgomery, Dave Watson, Dick Malone and Ian Porterfield.
Montgomery is playing better than ever, Malone is moving rapidly towards the top of the popularity parade. Watson needs only to rediscover the goal-scoring touch to claim full reward for his inspired leadership, and Porterfield gives a maximum in every game.
Four dependables there, all required to make vital contributions from key positions. They are consistent enough to warrant confidence in their ability to keep their games going, but while in a better team the value of their work would be enhanced considerably, their capacity for improvement as individuals must be limited.
The trend which will make Sunderland a better team in two months time than they are today must be maintained elsewhere and since there are no immediate signs of any attempt to recruit experienced players by dipping into the transfer market, the responsibility rests upon the growth rate, in terms of output, which can be achieved by the younger players.
Indications are that this demand will be met and though the formation may have changed a little before the team capable of making the final break emerges, it seems certain that the hard school of Second Division football will be helping Sunderland to produce the players for the occasion.
In the first wave of younger players are Bobby Kerr, Dennis Tueart and Mark McGiven, all of whom have had First Division experience, but are still adding fresh qualities to their play.
Kerr, wavering at one stage, has never looked back since he began to take on fresh responsibilities in midfield and is now able to do a first-class job of work behind the attack – and in a striking role when the opportunity arises. McGiven had to win a battle with himself after recovering from the several setbacks which he suffered two years ago and there are signs that he has left all that behind him now.
Tueart, often the victim of his own inconsistency, has at his command the most exciting qualities which would make him everyone’s best to top 20 goals a season. When he applies himself as he did in the game against Millwall a fortnight ago, he becomes a player of very high quality indeed. More efforts in that vein would be a tremendous boost to attacking power... and towards a necessary improvement in the rate of goal-scoring.
For the moment, it seems that there is an inclination towards getting the best out of John Lathan and Billy Hughes by splitting the No.10 role between them, with Lathan, strong and fearless, carrying a challenge to the opposition for the first part of a game and Hughes, speedy and able to penetrate, coming on for the final assault.
The fact that so far Lathan has knocked in four goals and Hughes has still to score would seem to indicate that there is more pay-off for one quality than for the other, but the idea is sound enough and there could well have been a handsome reward against Sheffield Wednesday last week if Hughes had been a luckier player.
There is no element to be taken into consideration for this position, however, in the form of Jimmy Hamilton, who must very shortly be pressing his claim for another chance to prove that he can bring fresh qualities to bear.
This 17-year-old six-footer is developing extremely well and it will be difficult to keep him out once he has filled in the gaps in his play.
There is the same promising trend in defence, where Mick Horswill’s steady improvement now enables him to work at his job with an assurance which would scarcely be expected from a youngster with such limited experience of League football. He has come along at a great pace since making his debut against Preston at Deepdale last season and looks a very fine prospect indeed.
So, too, does Jackie Ashurst, who confirmed at Roker Park last week the fine impression which he created a week earlier on the winning visit to Millwall. There is a lot of hard work ahead of him in an area where soccer reaches its peak in toughness, but he looks a good bet to win through.
This teenage pairing in the centre of the defence may be considered something of a gamble in view of the highly skilled performers they will be called upon to tackle, but it is a calculated risk and at this stage there seems an excellent chance that maturity will produce two players of exceptional ability.
Still to be decided is whether the remaining position in defence will be won on a regular basis by either Keith Coleman, the player in possession, or Joe Bolton, who is still getting over the effects of a knee injury.
Coleman, open to transfer at his own request, has shown that his desire to be away does not affect his acceptance of responsibility on first team duty. He has done well. But there can be no decision here until Bolton is fit enough to challenge again.
Story taken from the Football Echo on September 23 1972.