NO GAME has ever loomed quite so large on Sunderland’s horizon as their FA Cup (Sixth Round) tie against Luton Town at Roker Park next week ... and none has received such undivided attention to the exclusion of practically every other topic.
The magic of the Cup would have given it a big-game rating in any case and it is easily understood that there should be tremendous appeal in a game which is the last obstacle before a Semi-Final appearance.
But this one comes into a special category. It is a good deal more than a last chance to make some sort of impact upon a season which started with such high hopes of reaching the major target, which, until it is achieved, must always be a return to the First Division.
Next week’s game, the reward for an extended and highly profitable run in the Cup, marks the distance they have travelled along the road towards winning back the thousands who have deserted the Roker cause and, through them, towards a position in which they can begin to pay their way and wipe out the financial burden which has been mounting alarmingly over the last few years.
It is a game which invites everyone to look ahead again ... to look beyond what the Cup may yet hold and count the chances of making a winning fight of it in next season’s promotion race.
There is every indication that this invitation is being accepted and that the club-crowd partnership, without which only limited objectives are within reach, is being forged again as manager Bob Stokoe cultivates an entirely new image by not only meeting public demand, but anticipating it, too.
There is still a lot to be done before they are in full stride towards the top, but the drive is well and truly off the ground and with average attendances of nearly 35,000 for their last six League and Cup home games, the boom which everyone has waited to welcome is clearly on its way. Another capacity crowd next week will be a further boost.
And what are the chances of next week’s tie providing Sunderland with a passport into the Semi-Final? Quite apart from team strengths and capabilities, they could not have been given a better chance.
When the names went into the hat for the Sixth Round draw the breakdown of the eight clubs showed six from the First Division and two from the Second. Sunderland could not have wished for a better draw than home advantage over the other Second Division club.
And having obtained the best possible pairing, they now have to order their effort to ensure that they turn the situation to the best possible advantage. That part of the job is in safe hands and judging from the manner in which Mr Stokoe breathed match-winning flair into his player for the seemingly impossible task of demolishing Manchester City, there must be every confidence that they can dispose of Luton, too.
Luton’s away record and League position will sway national opinion in their favour and here in the North East there will be many who look at her 2-0 win over Newcastle United at St James’s Park and take that as a warning that an upset is in store. Further back still, Luton were 2-0 winners at Roker Park in a League game in October and that looks like another point in their favour.
But Sunderland are a vastly better side now than they have been at any other stage of the season and, with the bit between their teeth, they are going to take some stopping.
Back in October, Luton caught Sunderland the week after they had taken a physical mauling on their visit to Oxford United. Today’s league game at Kenilworth Road is a repeat in that respect, for Oxford were at Roker Park last week and made another hard game of it. But next week it will be different.
Dave Watson is now the king-pin in a reorganised and impressive defensive system which has conceded only ten goals in the last 15 games and the setting free of Billy Hughes and Dennis Tueart to express themselves in attack has brought a greater flair in this department.
And overall there is a fresh confidence and spirit throughout the side which lifts their output to a higher level than seemed possible a few short weeks ago.
Three times in reaching this stage Sunderland have needed a second game to ensure progress, but I fancy that there will be a decisive win at first attempt next week and they will qualify for the big prize of a place in the Semi-Final.
The March 8 transfer deadline passed quietly for Sunderland, except, of course that they allowed reserve defender Brian Thomson to go on a month’s loan to York City, who have an outside chance of winning promotion to the Second Division.
The task of achieving a steady climb away from the danger zone is going smoothly and Mr Stokoe is confident that he has a staff to meet the pressure which will be provided by a crowded programme.
With Mick McGiven coming along well after a cartilage operation and the likely return to duty of John Hughes, there is the biggest first team pool the club has had for some years. There will be a lot of load-spreading, for all three teams have heavy arrears of fixtures. And though the reserve and youth teams may have problems in sustaining winning challenges under such pressures, the fact that they are both still in the running for league championships and league cups is a clear enough indication of the quality of player on call.
Story taken from the Football Echo on March 10, 1973.