A HOME defeat against Burnley last week was not the starting point which Sunderland players had in mind for new manager Mr Bob Stokoe. They wanted to win and they ran themselves into the ground in unsuccessful pursuit of it.
Their all-out effort almost balanced the advantage which Burnley held in terms of organisation and maturity. Had Burnley not been helped to their victory by a defensive slip, in fact, they might well have finished with a creditable draw.
The result itself was disappointing, but as an exercise to demonstrate to the manager the material with which he is working it could hardly have been bettered.
Basically, he finds himself with a young and eager side which has an extremely high work-rate and a lot of skill. And without closer inspection he will not find it difficult to believe that on their present rating they must surely deserve to be a good deal higher in the league.
The performance itself did not disappoint him. “They gave everything they had and I thought they did well enough to get a point,” he said. He saved his disappointment for the players and the fans because there was nothing to show for a tremendous effort against a very good side.
The need to add physical power and experience in key positions is of long standing and in his own good time no doubt the facility will become available for him to do something about it. But in the meantime, he must organise the team to get the best possible contribution from the players available.
Team selection for this afternoon’s visit to Portsmouth was to some extent an indication of the lines along which he is working, with Mick McGiven bringing his greater experience to bear in a back four position which has been having a wearing effect upon Mick Horswill’s early promise.
The switch takes Horswill into the role of a midfield ball-winner in the nature of an experiment, but it is one which could be highly successful if this hard-working youngster’s work can complement the constructive ability which Ian Porterfield and Brian Chambers already produce in this area.
In both instances, there is the clear intention to improve the defensive side of the team pattern in line with the manager’s belief that sound defence is the basis of a successful side.
The team which he has inherited was designed to play attacking football from every position and this quality need not be lost. But it will surely be much more effective if a formula can be found to produce a tighter drill in defence.
Whatever steps may still have to be taken to bring about improvements in defence, one problem which has already been settled will remain the king-pin in this section.
Mr Stokoe and Watson had a long chat about the situation during the week and found that they had the same ideas on the subject. Without enjoying the position, Watson worked tremendously hard to make a go of it at centre forward and, apart from a spell towards the end of last season, distinguished himself more for chance-making than for scoring goals.
Dropping him back to centre half was Billy Elliott’s idea, but it has been Watson’s ambition for some time to get back to the centre half spot for which his talents are so well suited.
Mr Stokoe sees it that way too, and regards it as an important start towards putting the defensive section in order. Not that Watson’s ability to snatch goals will be neglected, of course, because he can become an important “extra” in set positions.
There was a big pay-off for the same balance in Charlie Hurley and Watson has all the qualities to become the same dominating figure in the team game.
The moment cannot be far away when Sunderland will have to look for a decision on whether Martin Harvey will be able to resume the playing career halted first for a cartilage operation and then for another operation to correct disc trouble.
It has been a long and unhappy experience for the former Northern Ireland captain, who was enjoying one of his best seasons with the club when a simple accident took him out of the promotion battle at Norwich last season and has kept him out ever since.
Whatever the verdict may be it seems certain that Harvey’s services will not be lost, for he is well qualified to put his experience to good use in a coaching capacity.
And if the worst should come to the worst, Harvey will certainly be pleased to put something back into a game which he has served so well ... especially with Sunderland.
Story taken from the Football Echo on December 9 1972.