Roker Reflections: Cup no distraction from main target

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PAYING customers, the people who keep football clubs in business, are so attracted by Cup football that the clubs themselves, regardless of their commitments or ambitions, can never afford to regard the FA Cup as being of secondary importance in any season.

Not that they would want to. There is cash in the Cup and that commodity is generally in such short supply that a longest possible run in the national competition becomes a major target at all levels.

With Cup progress comes enthusiasm and excitement to keep the paying customers happy and that is another reason for throwing in extra effort to keep it going.

But clubs with well-defined League targets, whether it be title-chasing or a struggle to climb clear of trouble at the other end of the table, must always feat that obsession with Cup interest can be a costly distraction with an adverse bearing upon League performances.

If Sunderland manager Mr Bob Stokoe had any fears on that score they must surely have been set at rest at Roker Park last week, when, with the exciting prospect of this afternoon’s big game pushed to one side, they turned in a thoroughly professional performance to finish runaway 4-0 winners of Middlesbrough in a Wear-Tees “derby”.

Anything less than the exciting effort which they produced in the second half could have landed them in real trouble, for Middlesbrough, joint fourth in the division before the game, has looked well capable to taking charge of the proceedings up to half-time.

But when the rhythm of Sunderland’s game quickened to produce a scoring burst of three goals in five minutes it was all over for Middlesbrough and Sunderland had given fresh support for the claim that they are, indeed out of place among the strugglers in the lower reaches of the Second Division. The win was important in that respect, but it has added significance against the background of Cup tension.

That second half burst was warmly applauded by Mr Stokoe, who set the pattern for it by his half-time pep talk, “That was the finest display the lads have given since I took over,” he said. And with the possibility of successive home games to follow he will be looking for more of it to ensure that the waves of enthusiasm, given fresh impetus by the Cup interest, continue to mount right through to the end of the season.

He was as enthusiastic as his players at the prospect of mounting this afternoon’s challenge to Manchester City at Maine Road, but he has always had in mind the prime importance of getting League effort into the right groove, not only for this season but in paraprotein for the promotion challenge which will be pressed with real confidence next season.

This showed clearly enough last weekend when the big topic was whether injured defender David Young would be able to throw off the effects of the ankle injury received at Hillsborough a fortnight ago in time to take his place in this afternoon’s game. His pointed comment was “With five games postponed already we still have a lot of football to play this season and I won’t be taking unnecessary risks. He won’t be turning out if there is the slightest doubt about his fitness.”

With so many games in hand, it is easy to make out a good case for Sunderland climbing swiftly away from trouble. But the hard fact is that they are much too near danger for comfort and it is going to be a hard fight getting away from it. It must be everyone’s belief that Young has an important part to play in the battle which lies ahead.

At individual level, last week’s “derby” game was memorable in several respects. Dave Watson, a player with so much natural ability that he can do a great team job in any position, proved conclusively that centre half is the role which suits him best. His magnificent display will long be remembered by those privileged to see it and it brought fresh speculation on the prospects of Watson, already noted at FA level, coming under consideration for higher honours.

Another satisfying feature was the home debut of Vic Halom, who claimed a well-taken goal to mark the occasion and provided that he has all-round ability to go with his challenging play. He enjoyed the game, was thrilled with the atmosphere, and feels that he will do better still when the last traces of a recent flu attack have cleared away.

It was a memorable occasion, too, for Mick Horswill, who has been adding to his game as a midfield player after being groomed to take on purely defensive responsibilities in the back four. He is a natural ball-winner and in one of half a dozen attempts he had the satisfaction of hitting his first League goal.

Fixture congestion is going to create a lot of problems for Sunderland for the remainder of the season, with extra games to fit in at all three levels. Priority goes to first team calls, of course, and with four of their five outstanding games already rearranged – only the Preston game postponed from today has still to be fixed – their programme has been reasonably spaced.

But cup success has added to the strain upon the Reserves and the youth team, with several players regularly upon call for both teams .... and lads like Joe Bolton, Jackie Ashurt, John Lathan, John Tones and Jimmy Hamilton having met first team calls, too.

If the first team can stay within its compact pool the strain may not be felt too badly at that level, but a rash of injuries could present severe problems.

Story taken from the Football Echo on February 24 1973.