Roker Reflections: Incentives far beyond FA Cup Semi-Final

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THERE can be no doubt that the wave of success which carried Sunderland through to this afternoon’s FA Cup Semi-Final against Arsenal at Hillsborough has been the major contribution to a corresponding improvement in the club’s financial position.

Without it, there would undoubtedly have been a much slower climb away from average home League attendances as low as 12,000 early in the season to nearly 20,000 as they stand at present.

The figures speak for themselves. Before the Third Round tie against Notts County average home attendances stood at 13,748. Seven Cup-ties later the League average is up to 19,591 and through there has been an artificial stimulus to reach that level through the issue at home games of vouchers or ballot cards, the trend was there before the stimulus was introduced.

Even more remarkable are the comparative figures for the four ties which have been played at Roker Park. They have attracted 174,879 people (average 47,719) against the 313,450 people (average 19,591) who have watched 16 League games so far.

The comparison is one which will give no special pleasure to those supporters who find the cost of a season ticket outside of their price range, yet still contrive to miss very few games. They want to know where the extra crowds come from and by what right they demand an equal chance of getting tickets for the big occasion which have suddenly reappeared on the programme.

Club officials would have welcomed a means of identifying the “regulars” and will not doubt take steps to ensure that the most deserving cases get the purity which is their due in future. In the absence of any system, the pay-at-the-door patrons who do not miss matches are the faceless ones who can be neither identified nor rewarded.

This season only season ticket-holders have been given special consideration and it is only right that they should. It can be taken for granted that there will be many more of them by the time another season comes around. But there is still the case of the regular supporter who cannot afford a season ticket. He is entitled to consideration too.

That is an administrative problem, however, and it arises directly from the success which has been achieved on the professional side in projecting a fresh image which the stay-aways can no longer resist.

It has always been said that they would be back when they were attracted and the club cannot command support other than by offering value for money. Well, they are coming back and rising figures indicate that they are satisfied customers.

The events of the last four months have made it easier to sell the club well for next season and the bigger the stake which supporters are prepared to put down for season tickets, then I believe, the bigger will be the investment open to the club in the matter of adding to the playing staff.

There is little point it attempting to look any further ahead in that line at the moment. But what of the players and what does the future hold for them it has been said that the limit of their vision so far as this season is concerned was this afternoon’s Cup Semi-Final against Arsenal, but that could not be further from the truth.

Today’s game was the big one, undoubtedly, but they have other incentives going for them which demand that they go all out for every point and every goal in every game they play. And their keenness to play unchanged as far as possible throughout a crowded programme is clear enough evidence of their acceptance of the need to succeed.

Incentive clauses in their current contracts provide for bonuses on League position and number of points. These may take a different form when new contracts are negotiated probably at the end of the present season, but under the terms of the existing contacts, fifth position in the League costs the club about £40,000 in bonuses and it would be a bold man who betted against them reaching at least fifth position this term.

That is a pay-out well worth earning at the rate of over £3,000 for an ever-present. But it does not end there. The position which finds them so far behind with their programme compared with other clubs tends to conceal the fact that they are also live candidates for a place in the lucrative Watney Cup to be decided in the week before the official opening of next season.

Promoted clubs are automatically excluded and that leaves Sunderland trailing nine goals behind the leading challengers, Sheffield Wednesday, but with five games in hand, it should not be beyond their capabilities to jump into the reckoning for a competition which could provide an ideal pipe-opening to their promised promotion challenge next season.

And there is, last but by no means least, the personal incentive for every player to give himself the opportunity of playing First Division football. It is a status symbol which no ambitious footballer can afford to be without. For some it is the cash that goes with it; for other a better chance to demonstrate international potential.

But for all it is a chance to reward a crowd, a club and a manager for services rendered in helping bring all the big targets within reach.

Story taken from the Football Echo on April 7 1973.