Football: Century no pointer to real quality

Simon Turnbull hears the doubts as Sunderland soar to a record
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The Independent Online
AS POINTERS go, the statistical evidence suggests Peter Reid's Sunderland team are on course for a place in the record books as well as a place in the Premiership. With eight First Division fixtures to play, they have 85 points. York City had 82 at the same stage when they became the first club to hit a century of points in a season. So did Swindon Town en route to their haul of 102 points as Fourth Division champions in 1986, which eclipsed York's 101 from the same division in the 1983- 84 campaign.

As fate has it, the next hurdle for Reid's would-be centurions pits them against the man who guided York to their historic three-figure total. Denis Smith, who also led Sunderland from the old Third Division to the First, takes his West Bromwich Albion side to the Stadium of Light next Saturday. Unless Smith's Baggies can bag three points on Wearside, the chances are that Sunderland will be promoted and still bound for the record books when Sheffield United, with Lou Macari in tow, roll into town on 24 April. Macari, Steve Bruce's managerial assistant at Bramall Lane, was in charge of Swindon's record-breaking Robins 13 years ago.

Reid's team, 12 points clear of Ipswich at the top of the First Division table, have already established one ground-breaking feat, albeit of an in-house nature. Their 3-1 victory against Bolton eight days ago was their 10th successive League win at home, breaking the post-war club record set by Bob Stokoe's Second Division championship side of 1975-76.

That team clinched promotion with a 2-1 win in front of a 51,983 Roker Park crowd - against a Bolton side who included the 19-year-old Reid. "That was the day I really began to understand what is meant by a passion for football," he reflected. "It was an awesome experience for me."

Reid is now manager of the third best-supported football club in England. The 41,505 crowd at the Stadium of Light eight days ago (not to mention the 1,500 ticket-less souls who watched the game on a giant screen at Crowtree Leisure Centre, half a mile away) moved the First Division leaders above Arsenal in the season's average gates table. Only Manchester United and Liverpool have attracted greater home support.

The passion is beyond doubt. What remains to be seen is whether Sunderland have a Premier pedigree. They patently did not the season before last, when Reid, to the frustration of the Roker faithful, left pounds 7m in transfer money unspent. The worry on Wearside already is that Reid's champions- elect, record-breakers or not, could be caught short on the quality street of the Premiership next season.

It was a fear articulated by Colin Todd, a Roker hero in his playing days, after his promotion-chasing Bolton team's point-less trip to Wearside last weekend. "Good luck to Sunderland," he said. "They have done everything right this season. But getting into the Premiership is one thing. Staying there is quite another."

Todd's own runaway champions, promoted with 98 points two years ago, failed to survive. Only two clubs who have stepped up from the First Division in the past five years, Leicester and Derby, have not dropped back down. In Todd's estimation, Sunderland will need four or five new players simply "to make a go of it".

And Reid, significantly, has already begun his recruitment drive, agreeing a pounds 1.8m deal with Lyngby for Carsten Fregaard. The Danish midfielder will join Sunderland on 1 July. "I believe he'll be a very good acquisition," Reid said. "Hopefully, there will be three or four more players joining us in the summer."

Reid, who tomorrow celebrates his fourth anniversary as Sunderland's manager, has of course made significant additions to his squad since the club's one and only season in the Premiership. In Thomas Sorensen he has a goalkeeper in the Schmeichel great-Dane mould. And in Kevin Phillips he has a goalscorer from the school of natural poachers.

After the famine of two seasons ago - when Craig Russell and Paul Stewart jointly topped the club scoring charts with four goals - the pounds 350,000 steal from Watford has provided a feast of 50 goals. That works out at pounds 7,000 per goal, compared with the pounds 300,000 each that Alan Shearer's half-century of goals has cost Newcastle.

Shearer's have been scored against better defences, it must be said. But Phillips, at 25, is eager to test himself against the best. "I've proved myself in the First Division, and now I'm desperate to prove myself at a higher level," he said. "All of us here want to play in the Premiership. It's the pot of gold that keeps driving us on." On record schedule too.

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