Roker Reflections: Late breaks point to a swing of fortune

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BREAKING back to winning form after a sequence of nine games without a win brings a sense of relief rather than achievement. This was Sunderland’s case at Portsmouth last week, when the team as a whole received a welcome boost from the knowledge that effort was sometimes fully rewarded.

The charge that it was a lucky win for them was valid only so far as the timing of the match-winning goals were concerned, for two in the last three minutes – the winner itself in the last few seconds – is a very rare experience.

But the goals themselves were the result of top quality moves and would have received wider acclaim as marking the balance of power between the sides if they had come earlier.

This was not a lucky win. The breaks came late and the great thing from Sunderland’s point of view is that they can be encouraged to believe they are poised to make up for the long string of bad luck which has kept them away from the higher rating which their play has merited.

Nine games without a win sounds like a disaster course, but this has been far from the truth. Indeed, in their seven previous games they were just one goal short of a point or an extra point in every game. And it is a simple calculation that if they had managed to snatch those goals they would today have been level with Aston Villa in fourth place.

The shade of improvement which would have brought them a better chances of success in that sequence is what Manager Bob Stokoe is chasing at the moment. And he is looking for it from minor adjustments in the playing staff available to him.

The belief that his first course of action would be to jump into the transfer market to line up players for positions which in someone else’s opinion, needed attention has proved to be wide of the mark. First of all he wants to know his players and be a complete part of the set-up. And the more he sees of it the more he likes it.

“We will buy on the right lines and at the right time,” he told me “but I shall not be stampeded into any course of action until I am sure I’m doing the right thing.

“This is a great club and we have a great bunch of players ready to put everything into their game. There is a great wealth of young players coming on, too. Lads like Jimmy Hamilton, Joe Bolton, Graham Southwick, Jackie Ashurst and Peter Stronach, to mention a few, are going to give Sunderland valuable service for many years to come.

“I do not have a gloomy picture at all. I am convinced that we will do well and I still say we will go like a ‘bomb’ in the second half of the season.”

That Portsmouth result was important. Several times this season Sunderland have played better away from the home and lost.

Teams like Aston Village, Queen’s Park Rangers and Bristol City knew how lucky they were to claim undeserved home wins against a Sunderland side which had played really well. For their part, Sunderland were pressed nearer to the point of believing that their best was never going to be good enough.

Against Portsmouth it was different. Without reaching the higher standards set in other games, yet always prepared to work at maximum pressure they withstood physical challenge without complaint to take the edge on skills. And when they adjusted the team pattern for all-out attack in the last 20 minutes, with John Tones going into the back four and Dave Watson going up front to take on the big men, they were all set to wipe out the deficit.

This sort of build-up has happened before, of course, and they have been left with nothing to show for it. Time was running out and another disappointment looked to be on its way. Then up popped Billy Hughes to head home an Ian Porterfield rebound from the bar and in the last few seconds Bobby Kerr headed the winner from a Dennis Tueart cross.

It was a great result with the greater benefit of injecting confidence into the team at a time when there is a general feeling that they are ready to start a dramatic climb up the table.

The sad news during the week was that Bobby Park, having worked patiently through 11 Reserve games after a 16-month lay-off which a broken leg and reached the brink if a first team recall, has been side-lined again with another broken leg as a result of a training accident.

He was at Portsmouth last week in the first team pool for the first time since his previous injury and Mr Stokoe had him under consideration for the substitute spot for this afternoon’s game against Preston.

Then, after knocking in two goals in a five-a-side practice on Tuesday morning, he fell awkwardly in a heading duel and knew before anyone else that his leg had gone again.

It is not a refracture and the break is some two inches away from the previous site.

Mr Stokoe and all Bobby’s team made were distressed after the incident, but Park has taken it well and is resigned to another season of the waiting game, with which he is already all too familiar.

“There’s nothing so certain that Bobby will be back again,” said Mr Stokoe, and he is a certainty to be in my team, supposing we have to wait until 1974-75.”

Story taken from the Football Echo on December 16 1972.