Roker Reflections: Continuing change a brake upon progress

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FOR the fourth time in eight years Sunderland find themselves in the position of having to seek out and appoint a manager to take charge of the professional side of the club’s affairs.

Putting personalties to one side for the moment, it is a sad story of continuing change which has put a brake upon progress. There can be no greater upheaval within a club than that attendant upon a change of direction at managerial level.

The next change is always looked upon hopefully as a change for the better, but a fresh approach and a fresh set of values brings a break in continuity. However well the job is tackled, it does not necessarily mean that there will be immediate benefit or, indeed, that the present rate of progress will be maintained.

Sunderland may hope that their next step will be the right one and that from the present framework, with the suitable additions that may soon be possible, there will emerge a team of considerable stature with the potential to make the long and arduous haul right back to the top.

During their first board meeting to consider the situation arising from the departure of Manager Alan Brown in mid-week, club chairman Mr Keith Collings stated the club’s intentions to advertise the vacancy. “We want the best man available as soon as possible,” he said.

It will be everyone’s wish that they succeed in their quest and that the man upon whom their final choice falls will be able to achieve the twin target of putting together a successful side and healing the breach between club and supporters which has sent attendances tumbling to an all-time low.

It is a tremendous task and the man who takes it on will need to have a lot of things going for him while he takes stock and plans the way ahead. And, whoever he may be, his case will be greatly helped if the level of results between now and his appointment can start the ball rolling in the right direction, following a disastrous spell of only one point from the last four games.

In football, directors and managers alike inherit situations which can be at any stage between good and bad. Opportunity and potential vary, but the immediate demand is to prosper or face the music.

Whatever else may be said about Sunderland’s situation to find a club of their stature in the lower reaches of the Second Division cannot be described as other than disastrous. The chapters of events which have contributed to their decline to this point are too well known to warrant repeating them. And in any event much of the content is too historical to have any direct bearing.

Certainly the trend over the last few years has been responsible for declining opportunity. The fact that Sunderland are probably the only club in the Football League not to have bought a player in the last two years speaks for itself. But this, of course, is only part of the inheritance ... again affecting directors and manager alike.

There is promise of fresh opportunity to promote improvement in play and attraction from the recent reconstitution of the board and from moves which are understood to be in hand to reorganise the club’s finances to allow for the recruitment of experienced players. Whatever success may attend these efforts, however, will presumably not be turned to advantage until such time as a new manager has been appointed.

So far as potential is concerned, this is the brighter side of the situation, for there are a lot of young players who promise to become top-class material. Taking fifth position in the Second Division last season may take only minor rating as an achievement, but with the same players as a basis upon which to build a promotion team, the outlook must be extremely hopeful.

There is no doubt that the current playing strength would have been enhanced considerably if the team had enjoyed the full-time services of Martin Harvey and Bobby Park, both of whom are on long term recovery programmes following serious injuries.

In their absence the progress of young elements has been hastened, but, this has a greater bearing upon future promise than upon immediate needs.

Time-taking processes manifestly have no appeal to club supporters, who have continued to desert the club at an alarming rate. Swift, dynamic progress is demanded and this will be the worthy through hard-to-attain target for the new set -up.

The fact that there is a sound basis for a starting point must be helpful however.

Speculation over who will eventually land the manager’s job goes on apace, with the wide scope available to the forecasters. The guessing game is inevitable and will continue until such time as there is firm indication of the club’s intention. But there was quick reaction to the suggestion that specific appointments were under consideration, linking the names of the Ashington and England international brothers Jack and Bobby Charlton.

Mr Collings said: “I can state categorically that we have made no approach to anyone whatsoever. We have decided to advertise the vacancy and that is how it stands.”

Meanwhile, they can count themselves fortunate that they have in Billy Elliott, a trainer-coach with the highest qualifications, an expert drilled in the Sunderland tradition, to bring a measure of continuity to the task of taking charge of the playing staff and organising the approach to League games during the waiting period.

The belief that supporters will react to the change in control by trickling back to Roker Park in greater numbers is now on trial, starting with the most attractive home game of the season so far with Aston Villa’s visit this afternoon.

Supporters with a return to the fold in mind may welcome the reminder that with one-third of the home programme now completed, season tickets for the remainder of the season will be at a reduced rate, with a further reduction when the two-thirds stage is reached.

Story taken from the Football Echo on November 4 1972.