Roker Reflections: Four-month surge to a Wembley final

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SELLING Sunderland well has been a major undertaking by Mr Bob Stokoe since he took over as manager of the club. There is abundant evidence of the magnificent job he has done in this particular line, with his first gentle nudge snowballing into a surge which has won world-wide acclaim for his team.

Within 24 hours of starting his new task he said: “We’ll go like a bomb in the second half of the season.” That seemed a hopeful forecast at the time with a lot of proving to be done. But the story which has unfolded from that moment would be sheer fantasy... if it was absolutely true.

One step before the fulfilment of the Wembley dream, Mr Stokoe came up with the quote of the week at the club’s Buxton headquarters, where the prepared for their Semi-Final tie against Arsenal. He said: “I keep reminding myself that Arsenal have no right to go to Wembley three years running and we’ve got to see that it doesn’t happen.”

The manner in which Arsenal were deprived of the Wembley ticket will be remembered and savoured for years to come by those whose privilege it was to see a Sunderland team qualify on merit for the show game of the season.

Four months of sheer magic had transformed Sunderland from a team separated from a relegation position only by goal ratio into a team with the skill and character to hammer out the long-odds Cup favourites on two occasions and go on to the Final with high hopes of handing out the same kind of treatment to Leeds United.

And yet, how prophetic was the reader’s letter published in the Echo the day after Mr Stokoe had taken over management of the club on November 30.

The writer, signing himself Roker End, St Marks, said: “Mr Stokoe has met the club officials, players and the Press. What about him meeting the supporters? Some early atmosphere and relationship could be created by asking Mr Stokoe to lead the team out on Saturday. Why wait till Wembley?”

That was the first show of confidence which has since swept through the ranks of the players and their supporters.

The glow of that Hillsborough occasion will continue until it is overtaken by anticipation of thrills in store at Wembley three weeks from now. But Mr Stokoe and his players have to brace themselves to set aside the heady atmosphere created by their achievement and settle down to the bread-and-butter task of clearing a massive over-load of League fixtures.

They look like having an exhausting time of it, though there is enough scope in the first team pool to allow a little load-spreading instead of throwing the full weight upon the side which has become recognised as the Cup formation.

Starting with this afternoon’s game against Portsmouth they have to play through seven games in 16 days before they can become single-minded in their task of preparing to take on Leeds United.

The sequence includes home games against Cardiff City and Blackpool, but there are also visits to be paid to Burnley, Hull City, Nottingham Forest and Orient.

There is no shortage of candidates for places in the side, with Brian Chambers and David Young current rivals for the substitute spot, topping the list of contenders. Also waiting in the wings are Mick McGiven, moving back to peak fitness smoothly after a cartilage operation, Keith Coleman, John Lathan, Joe Bolton, Jackie Ashurst and Ray Ellison, who between them have totalled 88 League and Cup appearances. And that may not exhaust the list of players whom Mr Stokoe may feel can do a first team job in the present circumstances.

It has already been decided that the club will establish Cup headquarters at Seldon Park, where the aim will be to repeat the mental and physical build-up which was achieved so successfully at Buxton last week.

Mr Stokoe and his players will sign off at Roker Park after the home game against Blackpool on April 28 and travel to Seldon Park the following day. On Monday, April 30, they will complete their pre-Final schedule by taking on Orient at Brisbane Road and then settle down for the Wembley occasion.

Still to come is the visit to Cardiff City on the following Monday and then on Wednesday, May 11, they are due to conclude their League season by taking on Queen’s Park Rangers, promotion favourites, at Roker Park. And it goes without saying that they are hoping to have the F.A. Cup on show to grace the occasion.

Story taken from the Football Echo on April 14 1973.