Roker Reflections: Problems mount with the fixture pile-up

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SUNDERLAND’s success or failure in pursuit of the targets which they have set themselves will not be decided until much later in the season, in view of the number of games which they have in hand over their Second Division rivals.

They have four or five more games to play than most of the other clubs and if this should be a season when weather disrupts the programme, they might well find themselves in a very difficult position indeed.

And while games in hand are, to some extent, a comfort, the tendency to count them on the credit side should be discouraged for there is no means of assessing that they are likely to yield.

Indeed, they are much more likely to be an embarrassment, for it means that some way ahead there will be a crowed programme coming up and the pressures of their League position are severe enough at the moment without additions.

Although Sunderland have a playing staff of 40, including apprentice professionals, they have only slender resources at first team level, for the bulk of their staff is made up of young and, as yet, untried talent.

Taking into account the Easter programme, which gives them three games in a week, they now face the task of fitting in two games a week for at least five weeks during the second half of the season. A team with an adequate and experienced first team pool does not have to be concerned over such a situation, but this is not Sunderland’s case.

They are caught in the third year of a do-it-yourself programme designed to develop their own players. And though there has been substantial official talk about signing players to strengthen the first team pool, the fact is that there has not so far been any movement.

Given the guarantee that there will be no spate of injuries, an event which they must fear most, I think a successful safety battle would be well within the scope of the present staff. But they are vulnerable to such an unhappy turn of events and the crowded programme ahead increased the danger.

It has already been determined that they will have this crop of problems to face in the second half of the season, but an equally significant question bearing on the current situation is a form reaction to the break from activity dictated by the outbreak of flu.

Spells of idleness caused by bad weather are unwelcome because they can unsettle a team’s rhythm. But it is a much more difficult position in which Sunderland find themselves after having the bulk of their team players out of action through a particularly weakening flu virus.

Little wonder that there was so much anxiety in the Roker camp at the prospect of having to travel for this afternoon’s game against Orient at Brisbane Road. When the players reported for a roll call and fitness check on Boxing Day following the postponement of the games’ against Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town it was evident that there was no chance of turning out a side in condition to do itself justice.

A Thursday morning sick parade confirmed that there was no improvement in the situation, but the Football League, when asked to authorise a postponement, delayed a decision for 24 hours and called for a further report yesterday morning.

It was with considerable relief that Secretary Ron Linney was able to announce yesterday morning that the League had granted the request and that Sunderland would be spared the ordeal of taking on Orient with a greatly weakened side.

The extra week provides an opportunity for the players to complete their convalescence and then work through a full training programme in preparation for a return to duty against Brighton at Roker Park a week today.

Meanwhile there is a confident forecast that the first Sunderland side to turn out for nearly three weeks will be in action at Roker Park on Wednesday night when the Reserves are due to entertain York City Reserves in the second round of the North Midlands League Challenge Cup.

Manager Bob Stokoe, who was first to go down at the start of the Roker flu epidemic a fortnight ago, hope to be cleared for action and ready to get back on the job again at the same time as his players.

He has had a rough time of it for on Christmas Day his doctor had to be called in again when his condition gave rise to concern.

There was no chance of him being able to link up with the team if the Football League had ruled that this afternoon’s game had to be played, but he hopes to be give the go-ahead for a return to full activity tomorrow.

One thing is certain, he will not be back on the job until he is completely fit, for he feels it would do more harm than good to hurry back before he is fit enough to cope with his full range of tasks.

It will be everyone’s wish that both manager and team are fighting fit in time to tackle their formidable array of New Year tasks.

It will not perhaps surprise Mr Stokoe to know that in his absence views on some of his most pressing tasks have been aired at length and a variety of solutions have been put forward.

The outcry for “a big, bustling centre forward,” which has been a standing item on the agenda of every soccer inquest for the last ten years, still holds pride of place. In terms designed to imply authority it has been said that players in the Roker sights for this job include Wyn Davies and John Hughes. But this is a kite-flying exercise in much the same mould as the suggestion that Manchester United’s new manager, Tommy Docherty, is poised to put in a bid for Dave Watson, whom he signed from Notts County while he was manager of Rotherham United.

Except of course that the Watson story–“fictitious” as far as Sunderland are concerned–could possibly have the harmful effect of unsettling the player.

Although he is keeping his cards close to his chest–and from a recent contract bridge experience I can assure you that he plays them extremely well from that position–Mr Stokoe already has firm views on the injections of power and experience which the team needs most. When the time comes to move, he will no doubt hope to conduct his business quietly and with a minimum of fuss which can have a devaluing effect upon the finance at his disposal.

Story taken from the Football Echo on December 30 1972.