THERE may be a lot of ground to cover yet before Sunderland can say with any certainty that they have succeeded in sweeping aside the apathy which has for so long stood between them and the enthusiastic following which they once enjoyed.
But any advance hint that they are waging a winning battle against a tide which has hit soccer generally – and them most of all – is welcomed. And from recent events there is encouragement to believe that the right kind of progress is being made.
To achieve their aim they have been successful on two fronts ... in putting together a winning team and in attracting the 25,000 who have long since lost the Roker Park habit.
Under the direction of Manager Bob Stokoe, it has been a very good start towards this twin target and the enthusiasm with which he is tackling it promises a steady quickening on both counts.
Apart from the unlucky 1-0 home defeat against Burnley in the first game under his direction, he has seen a steady rise in playing performances with three wins and two draws in the last five games.
And Tuesday night’s turn-out of over 30,000 for the FA Cup replay against Notts Country was encouraging proof that the old potential is stilt here and football followers in the area will still respond to attraction.
He set the tone of things himself by declaring confidence in the team’s ability to restore a winning balance in the second half of the season. That belief is catching on and there is increasing support for the view that Sunderland have already covered the first few rungs on the long climb back to the big-time.
The Sunderland manager has already demonstrated that he has his priorities right and he had the backing of the board to go ahead with his plans for reshaping and reinforcing his team structure.
The first phase which landed David Young and Ron Guthrie at bargain fees went through smoothly enough and he will waste no time over carrying out the second phase of landing a top-class striker, through he will not be pushed into moving before he is sure he has the right man lined up.
He is too well versed in North East football lore to need any reminding of where Sunderland should be standing in the eyes of the football public generally. And he will not be happy until he was played his part to the full in completing the restoration programme which will land them back at the top.
Before Saturday’s trip for the tie against Notts Country he was saying: “We need Cup cash, of course, but most of all we need the waves of enthusiasm which a good Cup run can set up.”
And there was no more delighted man at Meadow Lane at the end of a gruelling game which earned a replay and set the scene for Tuesday night’s big stride back towards an old-time Roker Park get-together with supporters.
He was thrilled with the fighting come-back of his team and with the tremendous encouragement which they received from Roker supporters in the crowd.
But, equally, he was delighted to be bringing back to Roker Park a game which would tickle the palate of soccer enthusiasts in the area. He does not call them stay-aways. He regards them as people who are waiting to be attracted and he accepts that it is his job to do something about it.
“It is great to be bring a little excitement for our supporters” he said. And after that decisive win on Tuesday night there is further excitement in store a fortnight hence, when he will be lining up his team for a Fourth Round home tie against Charlie Hurley-inspired Reading in what promises to be another festive occasion for a bumper Roker crowd. Those eagerly-sought waves of enthusiasm are surely beginning to build up as the drive for brighter times takes shape.
Dave Watson was case in the role of here in the two-stage battle for Cup progress against Notts County and the distinction could not have fallen upon a more dedicated player.
It is no secret that he would rather be playing in the back four than at the front and there is evidence enough of how valuable his service has been since he dropped back into a defensive spot. But it is also true that he puts team service first and there was special satisfaction for him in cracking two vital goals against his former club.
His goal tally now stands at three, all claimed since he stopped wearing the No. 9, and this supports the belief that he can do a great all-round job for the club, even through the biggest demand may be upon his defensive qualities.
But Dave was not the only hero. There was not a player in the game who did not give everything in service of the team and that incudes John Tones, who did not have the happiest of games.
If one more had to be mentioned, I would say it was Billy Hughes, whose current run of form is carrying way above his best ever.
The news which Manager Stokoe released before the Cup-tie that Sunderland were prepared to part with five players with a lot of first team football to their credit seems to have occasioned surprise in some quarters. But it cannot be denied that this is a realistic view of a staffing situation and one which is better tackled now than at the end of the season.
Whether there will be cash deals over these players remains to be seen, but clearly it is the intention to give everyone the opportunity of coming forward before taking any action on the player-loan basis.
Several clubs in lower divisions have already been in contact with the object of borrowing Keith Coleman, John Lathan, Brian Chambers, Richie Pitt or Derek Forster and putting them in the Fourth Division show-case, but cash customers will have the first consideration.
Story taken from the Football Echo on January 20 1973.