DRAINED of nervous energy by the tension and exertions of their FA Cup Replay triumph over Manchester City on Tuesday night, Sunderland could have wished for more imaginative and less physical opposition than Oxford United at Roker Park on Saturday for their descent from the head atmosphere of Cup excitement to the more mundane demands of League football. It was a disappointing mixture, salvaged only by the fact that the biggest League crowd of the season at Roker Park – 39,222 – was uplifted by a winning goal ten minutes from the end.
It is little wonder that Oxford have a defensive record bettered only by Burnley in the Second Division. They are a team of destroyers geared to deny time and space and Sunderland, in their frame of mind, ran into a lot of trouble trying to put their game together effectively. Not until the game’s last quarter did they succeed in doing so and even then it was left to Dave Watson to hit the all-important goal.
Winning was important, however, and if the manner of it was below expectations there was still a lot of satisfaction to be gained from the fact two more points were added to the drive to stage the earliest possible climb out of the danger zone.
Manager Bob Stokoe’s sympathies were with the crowd. He had hoped for something better to reward such wonderful support, but admitted that before the game he feared that it would turn out as it did. “A flat flow performance tends to follow the big occasion. We didn’t get going and we did nothing to get the crowd going either,” he said.
But in the disappointment of the moment, I think he was erring on the side of generosity to the opposition. On this occasion introspection should not be carried too far, for most of the blame for taking spectable out of the play fell upon Oxford, who, home and away, must be the least attractive opposition in the Second Division.
If their target was higher than one point from a 0-0 draw it did not show too often and there was justice in the fact that Sunderland were able to break from the close marking and niggling long enough to claim the win which their more positive approach deserved.
The hint that Oxford might be prepared to keep the game open came in the early minutes when Curran, who claimed a “hat-trick” in their 5-1 win over Sunderland at the manor Road ground in October, broke on the left to hit a fierce shot from the edge of the penalty area, which had Montgomery going up to turn it over the top in fine style.
But it ended there and Sunderland with their game breaking down against razor-sharp tackling, struggled to make progress. There were flashes from Hughes, Tueart, Halom and Kerr and an off-target shot by Horswill from a chance designed by Halom.
United’s efficient defence ensured however that no direct pressure was brought to bear upon their transfer-listed goalkeeper, Kevin Thomas, who was making is debut for them after being on their staff on transfer from Tranmere for two years.
It was a blow to United when they lost centre half Colin Clarke in the 20th minute with a dislocated knee. But substitute Derek Clarke proved an efficient deputy and Aylott wearing the No. 11, took on a defensive role, too.
Watson and Pitt, often on the wrong end of decisions by the referee who failed to spot the elbowing with which they have to contend, stamped out determined attacks through the middle before Halom made the first call upon Thomas with a powerful shot.
Hughes’s readiness to take on the opposition ran him into a rash tackle by Fleming, who was booked in the 31st minute. Cassidy could well have followed him shortly afterwards through fouls on Ellison and Montgomery in quick succession.
United were never nearer to scoring than in the 38th minute, when a free-kick had been headed out and returned to the middle. Roberts, on the six-yard line, had a clear chance, but merely tapped the ball wide of Montgomery, who dived back to jiggle with it before it was swept away. United’s claim that the ball had crossed the line was waved aside by the referee.
Malone and Tueart linked on the right to open up a chance for Kerr, whose 25-yarder just cleared the bar and then Hughes headed over from a Tueart cross.
Sunderland looked a little more businesslike at the start of the second half, when Halom twice had chances but failed to turn them to account. Then Porterfield showed with a strong run only to be charged off the ball by Shuker.
Horswill, injured in 59 minutes, went off three minutes later to be replaced by Chambers, whose fresh approach added considerably to the effort from midfield.
Apart from a swerving drive from Curran, which was turned over the bar by Montgomery, the initiative now lay with Sunderland and Thomas was kept in a constant state of alert with Kerr, Hughes, Porterfield, Tueart and Halom applying the pressure.
Thomas saved well from Porterfield and Halom and was relieved to see Tueart drive a Malone cross behind the goal.
Then in the 80th minute when Roberts used his hands in going up with Tueart 30 yards out, the referee awarded the free-kick which was to lead to Sunderland’s goal. Defenders took up action station in front of goal, but Kerr chipped out to Ellison, who was wide on the left. When he hammered the ball into the middle it was pushed out to the edge of the penalty area, where Watson was waiting to cap a great game with a brilliantly-taken goal.
The value of that goal might still have been lost, for in the last few minutes Ellison lost possession to Gough on the edge of the penalty area and with the United winger looking a certain scorer as he closed in there was a gasp of relief when he shot wide.
Watson, Pitt, Malone, Montgomery and Porterfield, who played under difficulties, were entitled to a sense of satisfaction over their efforts, but overall it was an occasion which the Sunderland players will not recall with any special affection.
Story taken from the Sunderland Echo on March 5 1973.