Roker Reflections: Sunderland can shock the new favourites

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DURING the two-week talk-in to the F.A. Cup Semi-Final confrontation between Sunderland and Arsenal at Hillsborough there will be a lot of speculation, inspired and otherwise, on what the outcome is likely to be, with most of it loaded Arsenal’s way.

There will be every shade of opinion ranging from Arsenal winger George Armstrong’s assertion that Sunderland are not ready to take on Arsenal yet to the odd reasoning that because Sunderland won the Cup in 1937 they will win it again in 1973.

There is no need to remind anyone that Arsenal are a thoroughly competent side. As they stand at the moment they are second best in the Football League and such a rating is not gained lightly. They are entitled to be confident about their prospects of going on to Wembley and Sunderland manager, Mr Bob Stokoe, is not alone in feeling that this confidence could tell against them when the time comes to settle the issue.

For their part, Sunderland have gained endless benefit from their tough run in the Cup this season. Under the guidance of Mr Stokoe they have learnt to believe in themselves again and in their present form they do not need to sell themselves short against any opposition.

Probably on the strength of the fact that they will be facing Second Division opposition, Arsenal have been installed as favourites to win the Cup. They are an 11–8 chance, with Leeds United 6–4, Wolves 6–1, and Sunderland the outsiders at 14-1.

Taking on Cup favourites is not a new experience for Sunderland this season however. Manchester City enjoyed that high rating when Sunderland shocked them at Maine Road by forcing a 2–2 draw after holding a 2–1 lead at one stage and the manner in which they delivered the knock-out blow at Roker Park in the Replay is still fresh in everyone’s mind.

City are best qualified to judge how Sunderland are to be assessed and how misleading is their position in the Second Division table. It is true that City have done little right since their dismissal from the Cup and there is no means of knowing how much of their troubles are due to the shattering experience of their widely publicised hopes of a Wembley triumph being snatched away from them.

But on the day Sunderland emerged as masters on merit and what they achieved on that occasion they must have an excellent chance of repeating at Hillsborough.

They carried out an extremely efficient demolition operation against Luton Town last week, with their overall effort deriving inspiration from the work of Dave Watson, Richie Pitt, Dick Malone and Ron Guthrie. With a back-four of this quality taking charge, Luton’s hopes of progress vanished before a goal had been scored. And if the same effort can be produced at Hillsborough, Arsenal will receive early warning of the task which confronts them.

The combined talents of Bobby Kerr, Ian Porterfield and Mike Horswill can match the best Arsenal can produce in pursuit of midfield control and the task of containing a striking force which has Dennis Tueart and Billy Hughes expressing themselves freely around the direct challenge of Vic Halom is one which will create a lot of problems for the North London club.

All in all, I think Sunderland are well equipped to make a winning fight of it. And the fact that Wembley is only 90 minutes away will be a bigger inspiration to them than to Arsenal, who have known a lot of big occasions in recent seasons.

Omens abound, too. Victory over Luton Town was one of the steps to Wembley triumph for Sunderland in 1937 and it was at the expense of the Kenilworth Road club that they qualified for this year’s Semi-Final.

Although there have been previous ties against Royal Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal, the only F.A. Cup-tie billed as Sunderland v Arsenal took place at Roker Park in 1961, when Sunderland, then a Second Division team, floored the odds by gaining a 2–1 win.

All this has little bearing on what is likely to happen at Hillsborough, however. The hard fact is that Arsenal are second top in the First Division and Sunderland are just getting to grips with the task of climbing away from the danger zone in the Second Division.

The big question is just how far can Sunderland be lifted by the current wave of spirit, confidence and enthusiasm. In fact, how much better are they in their present mood than their League position indicates?

The answer to that query will set the balance of power between the sides better than any reference to their current placings in order of merit. And there is no lack of confidence in this area that Sunderland have already begun to take the strides which will carry them back to the First Division geared for fresh conquests as the impetus of their rise develops.

Story taken from the Football Echo on March 24, 1973.