Roker Reflections: Cup progress sparks off the big boom

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THERE can be no mistaking the signs that the long-heralded Roker boom which supporters have been waiting to cheer is now in full swing.

Manager Bob Stokoe pays his tribute to supporters by saying: “These are the people who can make us big again” and they, in turn, applaud the drive and foresight which he has shown in presenting Sunderland as a team striding back towards the top.

Thus the club and its supporters are renewing the partnership which brings all the long and sort term target within reach.

Cup football has undoubtedly played a big part in the upsurge of interest, for with four games behind them and an exciting test coming up against Manchester City at Maine Road in a fortnight’s time it is in keeping with past experiences that cup glamour proves irresistible to North-East football followers.

But the cynical view that the bubble will burst if and when the Cup run falls short of the closing stage of the competition ignores the fact that everything which has been done to maintain the strongest possible Cup challenge will also ensure that fresh power is brought to bear upon the task of making a winning fight of it in League play, too.

And much as Sunderland’s supporters are enjoying the present Cup run and looking forward hopefully to further achievement, they would still dearly like to see the team win its way back to the First Division. The conviction that they are on their way is gaining ground and proof of this fact is already to be found, with more to come.

The big business level was reached in the FA Cup with 45,175 spectators watching the two games against Notts County followed by an even more impressive turn-out of 59,706 for the two games against Reading. Significantly, the 22,781 gate for the visit of Millwall was the biggest for a League game at Roker park for 18 months.

The next chance to assess how the Roker crowd feels about League football comes a week today, when Middlesbrough will be visitors. And in case it should be argued that the attendance at a “derby” game can hardly be taken as a guide, it is worth recalling that the Wear-Tees “derby” game last season attracted only 28,129 onlookers. How many more, I wonder, will want to see next week’s game?

In theory, Sunderland are still in the process of wriggling clear of the danger zone. Their recent haul of eight points from five games has taken all the tension out of the situation, though sixth place from bottom is not an entirely comfortable spot. But with so many games in hand of the clubs around them, there is no knowing how exciting the reminder of the season can become if the consistency with which they are currently picking up points is maintained.

Burnley and Queen’s Park Rangers could well be out of everyone’s reach well before the season end, but Sunderland could become live candidates for one of the top positions behind them.

What a bonus for both club and crowd if the impetus in the build-up towards next season’s promotion challenge is reflected in the measure of support a season in advance, as it was in the case of Aston Villa, who climbed out of the Third Division with all-time attendance records to prove the faith of their supporters.

With Manchester City quoted second favourites to win the Cup and Sunderland hardly meriting a quote at extended odds, there is an invitation to believe the manager Bob Stokoe’s lads will be making an unnecessary trip to Maine Road in a fortnight’s time.

But Manchester folk, whether they have long or short memories, will have no difficulty in recalling the embarrassment which Sunderland have caused to both United and City on their own grounds.

The last time Sunderland played at Maine Road they were already sliding towards relegation, but they were still good enough to beat City 1-0. The fresh buoyancy throughout the club will guarantee that their challenge will have to be respected. And there is the certainty that a big contingent of supporters will be in good heart.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the decision was taken not to make it an all-ticket game, though this could react in the favour of Sunderland’s supporters, who could take up more than their quota of standing accommodation by the simple expedient of being their early enough.

Season ticket holders can apply by post for seat tickets or in person between 5pm and 6pm after the Middlesbrough game and between 10.30am and 11.30am the next day. The allocation of tickets to the general public will be on sale on the Sunday morning to personal applicants only.

Wednesday night was a great occasion for Sunderland supporters, for they saw their favourite carry on from where they had left off in the first game against Reading to sweep into a commanding position within half an hour.

They played some great football in the first half and though the entertainment value dipped a little afterwards, there was no mistaking the quality gulf which Sunderland had established.

There was a good turn-out from all quarters, but of special note was the contingent of youth and Reserve team players, led by Matt Robson and Ian Harrison, who travelled down for the same after playing at Hull on Monday night and Middlesbrough on Tuesday night.

Another surprise visitor was Fred McIver, who was given a free transfer at the end of last season and is now playing in Belgian League football for Racing Jets. Accompanied by Ken Ellis, who formerly played for Hartlepool and also played cricket for Whitburn, he flew over from Brussels specially to see the game.

McIver, who helped Sunderland to win the Youth Cup in 1969, was particularly pleased to know that the team was making a strong challenge in this season’s competition.

Incidentally, their quarter-tie final tie against Chelsea has been arranged to take place at Roker Park on Tuesday February 20 (7.30).

Story taken from the Football Echo on February 10 1973.