Roker Reflections: League Cup draw part of the uphill pattern

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SUNDERLAND have been fighting an uphill battle ever since they won promotion in 1964. They have been charging along a course liberally spaced with obstacles, many of them self-constructed... and just as many concocted by the trick of fate which decrees that the struggling club cannot hope for lucky breaks.

In an era of declining support and declining income, there has been a continual struggle to make ends meet, with the inevitable need from time to time to prune their staff or part with valuable playing assets.

The figures revealed in the accounts which will go before shareholders at the annual meeting on September 1 show clearly enough the perils of the present financial situation and sounding out the ways and means of commanding the necessary improvement must be exercising the minds of club directors.

Time is not on their side. It is evident to everyone that a team structure of great potential is emerging as a result of the untiring labours of Manager Alan Brown and his staff. Young players mounting in stature and still younger ones pressing forward point to a situation some way ahead when there will be an abundance of home-produced talent. But the upward swing in the financial graph will have to come in time and the means of forcing an early improvement will not be easily found.

A reminder that the breaks are still going against them came with the draw for the second round of the Football League Cup. A good run in this competition would bring substantial contributions to income, but their pairing with Stoke City means that they will have to succeed where everyone else failed last season, for City won the trophy impressively and did most of their fighting without the benefit of home advantage.

There could not be a tougher task than taking on City at the Victoria Ground and the odds against them making a winning fight of it there will be long indeed.

But this is all part of the uphill pattern with which the team and the club as a whole is confronted. They will need to go into this game with the same steely resolve expected of them in their quest for a promotion place at the end of the season.

The brighter side of the picture lies in the fact that team strength, which mounted sufficiently to take fifth place last season after holding a promotion chance from the start, is still mounting. And if omens count for anything then it might be as well to remember that they attracted more people to Roker Park for League games last season than they did the previous season ... and match revenue showed an increase too.

This could be the long-awaited turn in the tide of the club’s fortunes, but there will be a better time for assessing this situation when the events of the next few months have been taken into consideration.

A preview of how they are likely to fare should be provided next week-end, when they visit newly-promoted Brighton on Saturday and then travel to Bloomfield Road on Monday night to take on Blackpool, who in most books are joint favourites, with themselves, to land the promotion prize.

On their previous sojourn in the Second Division, Sunderland always found it tough going at Brighton and they will need all the spirit they can muster to strike winning form. They took a point at Blackpool last season, but they took as big a pounding in the last half hour of that game as they did in any other throughout the season.

All the big tests are coming together, but along with the strain of meeting them goes the opportunity to strike telling blows and set a level in morale which can equip them for a winning haul towards the top. The uphill nature of their task will surely ease a little if they can crack one or two of the hard cases.

The disappointment of making a losing start to the season in the “derby” game at Middlesbrough last week was eased to some extent by the knowledge that the enforced absence of Dave Watson imposed a restriction upon their attacking power which they could ill-afford.

Watson was in such tremendous form in the closing stages of last season, both in scoring goals and making them, that there was confidence that the answer to problems over finishing power had been found.

Here was the reminder of the vital part which he plays, for this was only a shadow of the attack which hammered five goals past Watford and then storming to a convincing victory over Carlisle at Brunton Park.

A fortnight earlier Watson had picked up an ankle injury at Berwick and his chances of making the “derby” game were rated good throughout the week. But when the time came for a final decision it was considered that the risk of playing him was not worth-while.

If the ankle had not stood up to the test, it could have meant that he would have missed the next half-dozen games. Instead, the extra week’s work between the healing hands of physiotherapist John Watters and the training grounds at Washington New Town produced him completely sound for this afternoon’s game.

There could be no denying Middlesbrough’s entitlement to victory last week. They worked well together and were full of running at the finish with the inspiration of a two-goal come-back to spur them on. Sunderland, having lost their grip in vital positions, could not string their play together well enough to get back into the game.

Sunderland youth team made a great start to their Northern Intermediate League season, when goals by Graham Southwick (3), Jackie Ashurst, Chris Kent, Bobby Mitchell and Ken Henderson gave them a resounding 7–0 victory over Huddersfield Town.

This was the manner in which any championship side would like to start their defence of the title, but it would also be noted that they had a exceptional strong side on duty.

The pruning of staff at the end of last season means, however, that they will have to share the best of their talent with the Reserves, who are due to open their programme on Wednesday night, with a home game against Halifax Town.

The object of both the youth and Reserve teams is to produce players of first team potential and Mr Brown has always put his minor sides together with this in view. It was perhaps coincidental last season that both managed to win their respective championships.

Story taken from the Football Echo on August 19 1972.