Roker Reflections: Sunderland resuming the big club image

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SUDDENLY there is magic in the air around Roker Park. A team which has won decisively at second attempt in each of its three FA Cup-ties has claimed nationwide attention and the spontaneous reaction from supporters has exceeded all expectations.

It brings back the era of capacity attendances and with it comes a renewal of the club – team – crowd relationship which was once the envy of all. Sunderland are indeed emerging from the shadows and resuming the big club image cherished by the faithful few through nine terribly lean years.

Manager Bob Stokoe’s first prediction, made within hours of taking over the job, was that Sunderland would “go like a bomb” in the second half of the season. Whether this was unsuspected occult power or supreme confidence in what he had to given and what he expected to receive from his players is a matter of conjecture. He knew he was taking over a good set-up and that, within limited, finance would be available for him to make it better.

But that is beside the point. The fact is that his prediction has been fulfilled in the fullest sense and no one will minimize is personal contribution to the dramatic swing in events which has set the club striding firmly towards a brighter era. The excitement and enthusiasm which he so desperately wanted for and from supporters is already here.

The prospects of reaching their present position could not be rated highly after being held at home by reading in the Fourth Round and drawn away to Cup favourites Manchester City in the Fifth. Yet, three tremendous ties later, they are on the crest of a wave with a favourite’s chance of reaching the Semi-Final for the first time since 1956.

Cup success gives the scene its rosy tint, but the massive demand for tickets and the boom in support cannot fail to have an equally uplifting effect upon the bread-and-League competition, in which there are still a lot of important battles to be won. Indeed, the brisk sale of sale tickets at this late stage of the season seems to ensure that badly needed revenue will be flowing into club coffers for the rest of the season.

There have been signs of a reawakening of interest, but the surge which took nearly 15,000 supporters to Maine Road last week and then a sell-out for Tuesday’s replay at Roker Park exceeded wildest hopes. And, to some extent, the club has been caught unprepared for such an eventuality.

Faced with the possibility of another capacity crowd for their Sixth Round tie against Luton a fortnight today, it was decided to make this tie an all-ticket match. The match considering was the fairest possible means of ensuring that tickets went into the hands of those most entitled to receive them ... and who could have stronger claims that those who have not deserted the club during lean years which had dragged average attendances down to 15,000?

This led to a decision to put 34,000 vouchers on the turnstiles for this afternoon’s game against Oxford United and give the assurance that the holders of vouchers wold be guaranteed Cup tickets when distribution starts tomorrow week.

No distribution system is foolproof and it had to be accepted that there would be cases on injustice, because vouchers were issued on a first-come first-served basis and not all the regular supporters could be sure of being there soon enough to obtain a qualifying voucher.

The announcement sparks off a heavy demand for seat reservations for today’s game, with would-be buyers queuing at the ground on Thursday until the supply was exhausted. Tickets which had been on sale since a week past Monday, had not been printed for all the seating, however, and there were still several thousand seats available to pay-at-the-gate patrons.

The problems which have arisen from this situation will, in themselves, lead to a closer look at future distributions and help towards a greater preparedness for coping with the big-time which everyone hopes is just around the corner.

But the Cup, glamorous though it may be, is no more than a passing scene against the backcloth of a battle for promotion to the First Division, which must remain the prime target.

No one is more aware of this than Mr Stokoe, who is as thrilled as anyone by the team’s achievement in the Cup, yet keeps the seriousness of the League task in full view of all his players.

He has spent wisely in adding to a slim first team pool with the object of cushioning his team against the ravages of a congested programme which looks like posing no end of problems in the few remaining weeks.

The flu epidemic and cup success have torn six rearranged games into an already full programme for the remainder of the season and there could be another if they play winning football in the Sixth Round.

Visitors to Orient and Cardiff City have already been fixed for Cup Final week, there are three games in Easter week, and they could be playing two games a week in the preceding month.

And all this pressure is to be thrown upon a team which, before today’s game, was standing only two points above a relegation position, yet fired by Cup ambitions which no one wants to curb.

Story taken from the Football Echo on March 3 1973.