SLOWLY but surely public opinion is swinging round to the view that Sunderland are on their way back to the First Division and there seems to be only a minor difference of opinion on how soon – or how long – it may be.
It is a welcome trend and one which augurs well for the future when it may be hoped the stride towards the top will quicken excitingly to step up box-office attraction to the level enjoyed during the last promotion drive of eight years ago.
Belief that the climb back is in progress is not yet reflected in attendances. Indeed, there were nearly a thousand fewer to see them in action against Swindon Town last week than there were for the Orient game a fortnight earlier. With this goes the warning that the struggle to win back the thousands who have lost the Roker Park habit has not made the slightest progress ... and is unlikely to do so until the flow of results demands attention.
The newly-converted are numbered among those who have never deserted the club. Season after season they have found themselves members of a declining audience, until the assembly has been reduced to the hard core who have never quite given up hope.
In the present level of performance they now see quite a lot of hope and they can be relied upon to continue their support. But filling the vacant spaces on the terraces and in the stands is a different matter.
Five or six cracking results in succession or a couple of top-class signings should no doubt quicken the process, but until something of that sort happens the task which confronts Manager Alan Brown and his staff is to work for improvement in the belief that reward for the progress already made cannot be far away.
Could it be this season or will it be next? Sunderland have no time limit on their promotion aims, except that the target is to get back into the First Division at the earliest possible movement, because that is the only background against which the club can enjoy the prosperity which it so desperately needs.
For those whose task it is to work on the younger elements who are now making their mark at League level and for the thousands who still follow their progress keenly, there is encouragement to believe that promise will be fulfilled. But the bulk of the crowds who used to make up the regular 40,000 turn-out at Roker Park do not react to promise. They want to see the real thing for their money and until they are convinced that it is there they are unlikely to be wooed back.
Thus the promising start to the new season is of less value as a crowd-puller than it is in laying the foundation for a successful tilt for a promotion place when the pressure comes on in the second half of the season.
The fact that a gathering of club managers and officials at Blackpool, all well qualified to express opinions, were warm in their praise of Sunderland’s quality and prospects does not lend any weight to the effort to counter the “knock Sunderland” campaign which has been waged so successfully in the last few years. But when neutral experts take this view, it must at least be worth noting.
Playing sequences will provide their own patterns and it remains to be seen how Sunderland will be standing after they have completed the first 12 testing games in an unbalanced programme. But from the playing point of view they can only work on one game at a time.
For Roker supporters there was the opportunity to make comparisons after last week’s win over Swindon Town. A fortnight earlier, when they played their other home game against Orient, Sunderland faced a different task, but came up with same result – victory by a one-goal margin.
Orient, negative at every turn, spoiled the game for a point and must have thought themselves well on the way to achieving it until Dennis Tueart knocked in the match winner with only ten minutes to go.
Swindon were a different proposition. Still negative to some degree, they had greater all-round attacking flair, which they demonstrated to the discomfort of Sunderland defenders by fighting back after a 1-0 lead had been reduced to a 1-3 deficit.
Sunderland came out of it well and a five-goal second half produced a lot of exciting football for a small but appreciative crowd.
Although there were grounds for satisfaction on several counts. I thought the three players who excelled themselves in this game were Jimmy Montgomery, Mick Horswill and Dick Malone.
A player like Montgomery, who has been a first team regular for 12 seasons can too easily be taken for granted, though there were onlookers who were concerned about a slight loss of form on Montgomery’s part last season. Whether this was due to a general falling off in defensive play at the time can only be guessed, but the certainty is that Montgomery is back to his brilliant best this season, with a string of highly impressive performances.
He was exposed to a lot of difficult situations against Swindon, but found the answer to most of them and it was a tribute to his lightning reactions that Swindon were unable to show greater profit from their breaks.
Young players stepping up for senior duty usually have their ups and downs for a while before there can be a firm assessment on their chances of making the grade. It is a sure sign of quality in Horswill that he has never stopped improving since he first took over the sweeper role from Martin Harvey towards the end of last season. He is adding to his game all the time and there is tremendous benefits through the defence.
Malone’s contribution as a defender who likes going forward and does so with such confidence and power qualifies him as an important part of the attacking pattern followed by the team as a whole. There should be a lot of goals from his enthusiast effort this season, because he uses the ball well and is difficult to dislodge when on the move.
With the toughest part of their opening programme over, Sunderland can look forward to the luxury of two home games in the next ten days, first against pace-making Sheffield Wednesday next Saturday, and then against Carlisle United the following Wednesday night.
There is an attractive angle to both games and it will be interesting to see whether their visits pull in the sort of crowd which might be expected.
Last season there were 23,288 to see Sunderland beat Wednesday 2-0 and 20,998 to see a home defeat against Carlisle. The same sort of attendance figures would be welcome evidence of a revival of interest among Sunderland’s more impatient supporters.
Story taken from the Football Echo on September 9 1972.