Roker Reflections: League position gives cause for concern

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SO it is a Christmas shut-out for Sunderland supporters, who have not been deprived of the opportunity of seeing their favourites in action at this period since the first season at the old Newcastle Road ground in 1886-87.

The flu epidemic, which started with Manager Bob Stokoe going out of action at the beginning of the week, reached such proportions that they had no option but to ask for Football League permission to call off their holiday games at Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town.

And since they had 13 players laid up, four more showing symptoms of infection and a further four out of action through injury, the League could scarcely refuse to grant the request.

The postponement meant a well-defined break after completing the first half of their season’s programme and, together with the home game against Carlisle United which was postponed because of a Football League Cup replay, leaves them with three games to re-arrange in the second half of the season.

How they will be equipped to resume activities with a visit to Orient next Saturday will not be determined until Tuesday morning, when the playing staff will be reporting to the Washington Newtown training complex for a roll call.

Mr Stokoe, already much-improved himself, will be hoping for a full-scale turn out so that the three days available can be used to the best advantage in preparing for the visit to Orient. Anything less than full scale will present problems, for the first team pool is already perilously thin.

The handicap of limping into the second half of season with a weakened side is one which Sunderland will hope to avoid, for there is a lot of leeway to be made up if they are to achieve a rise above the danger zone before the closing stages of the season.

It is a comforting thought that they are too good a side to be in their present position and an 18-point yield from the first half of their programme can be taken as an indication of their ability to do at least as well in the second. But the recent record calls for second thoughts on the subject and gives rise to considerable anxiety.

Twelve of those 18 points were claimed from the first ten games. The last 11 games have produced only six points and though in eight of the last nine games an extra goal would have meant an extra point, the sequence is already in the record book and it is telling heavily against them.

Mr Stokoe is working though a series of adjustments in team formation in the hope of finding a mean of obtaining more profitable service from the players already available. From the questions he has asked of players in this form he has received several answers, and though all will have their value to him, they have no achieved striking progress in terms of results.

Three games have offered him little enough opportunity to assess the overall position, but he has clear ideas on where the injection of fresh material is most urgently required.

There has already been a lot of name-dropping by those who foresee an early entry into the transfer market and also have fixed ideas on the players he should be seeking.

But beyond the statement, “We will building on the right lines and at the right time”, he has given no firm indication of what or who he has in mind.

This would be the wrong time to be pressed into panic buying for the sake of introducing fresh players who may not be able to improve the situation. And the fact that next Saturday is the dead-line for the registration of a player or players to qualify for the FA Cup-tie against Notts County on January 13 does not necessarily have any bearing on the timing of a move for fresh talent.

A good run in the FA Cup would be a welcome boost to morale and finances, for sight must not be lost of the fact that Sunderland are still in a falling market in the matter of attendances, with gates down by about 4,000 on the average on last season.

But the major task at the moment is to being the League position under control. When that is accomplished a lot of things will fall into line and there can be greater confidence in shaping the way ahead.

It was perhaps predictable that Sunderland should run into trouble in the home game against Preston last week. Negative tactics by the opposition usually give them problems and they are not too well equipped for coping with the more physical sides.

Preston’s output was a combination of both and while the Sunderland defence came out of the game with considerable credit, thanks largely to Dave Watson and Jimmy Montgomery, there was a quality gap both in midfield and attack which prevented them from making a winning fight of it.

Chances were there in a measure which has been repeated so often this season, but the squander habit persists. Little wonder that the popular guess at the remedy for Sunderland problem is – and has been for so long! a “big, strong forward who can knock in the in the goals.” But I wonder how much better they might be served by a big, strong midfield player to take charge of the entire operation?

Story taken from the Football Echo on December 23 1972.