Roker Reflections: Sunderland programme stays out of balance

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WINNING back support to at least a break-even level and regaining their place in the First Division are Sunderland’s twin targets this season. Pursuit of them can be a single task and from a difficult starting point it has to be admitted that they are making good programmes.

And if, for the moment, they seem to be making rather better progress in their promotion aim than in packing the extra thousands into Roker Park, they have the valid excuse that they are being denied the right kind of opportunity.

It was bad enough when the League’s computerised fixtures drew up a programme which allowed them only two home appearances in their first six games. But complications have arisen which result in the imbalance being extended to only three home games in the first nine.

Carlisle United were due at Roker Park on Wednesday night, but their involvement with Liverpool in a Football League Cup replay rules out that game, which now goes to the end of the list to await agreement on a fresh date.

So after today’s game against Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland have to play through away games against Huddersfield Town and Aston Villa before they will be in action in front of their own crowd again.

This means that with nearly a quarter of their programme over they will have played only three home games, which offers them scant opportunity to sell themselves to the Roker crowd.

There may, in the long run, be benefit from the delayed action on the home front, but it will depend on them being able to maintain the high level of performance which they have managed so far away from home.

Certainly the form which they displayed in becoming only the second side to beat Millwall at The Den in 18 months would go down well with home supporters, because this was an exciting display of attacking football, which deserved a good deal more than a modest 1-0 margin. When this sort of show becomes the order of the day at Roker Park attendances will surely climb.

There was additional satisfaction in this display, because it came only three days after they had been dismissed from the Football League Cup by the holders, Stoke City, at the Victoria Ground.

Fears that there might be a hangover from the unsuccessful brush with First Division opposition were quickly allayed and the spirit with which they went at Millwall front start to finish was the surest proof that there had been benefit rather than damage in the defeat.

Not that there was any attempt to conceal disappointment over dismissal from a money-spinning competition, which could have made badly-needed contributions to the Roker coffers. Away draws in three successive seasons and losing challenges have kept their income down to a minimum from a competition in which they twice set attendance records, first with a 29,588 crowd for their third round tie against Walsall in October 1961, and then 33,237 for their semi-final tie (first leg) against Aston Villa in January, 1963.

Bringing Stoke back to Roker Park for a replay would have been a fine achievement and a good turn-out of supporters could have been expected. But on the night they were not good enough to obtain such a result, nor could there be any doubting Stoke’s entitlement to success.

Yet the score-line itself was hard on Sunderland, for they played their most convincing football between City’s first and second goals and were, in fact, having the better of matters when City forced their second break. The third goal near the end was an unkind twist which their spirited play scarcely deserved.

Story taken from the Football Echo on September 16 1972.