Football: Sunderland on the rebound

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The Independent Online
SUCCESSIVE CUP defeats will have done little to temper the ambitions of Sunderland as the First Division leaders travel to Watford today. The Wearsiders' assistant manager, Bobby Saxton, is confidently predicting a positive reaction to the club's recent disappointments.

Sunderland, in rampant form in the League this season, were given some measure of their progress this season - and probably their prospects next - when they were beaten by Premiership opposition. Last week, Blackburn Rovers shunted them out of the FA Cup and Peter Reid's team were beaten 2-1 in the first leg of the Worthington Cup semi-final at home to Leicester on Tuesday.

However, Saxton yesterday issued a warning to the club's promotion rivals: beware of the backlash. "Ever since we went top, every other team in the division wants to beat us. It makes every game a big game," Saxton said. "We were disappointed not to win against Blackburn and Leicester - but we won't let those results bother us."

The Vicarage Road manager, Graham Taylor, sees startling similarities between the league leaders and seventh-placed Watford's zenith in the early 1980s. "Sunderland have team spirit, players who deliver the goods and who know what they're about," Taylor said. "In the 80s at Watford we didn't really have any tricks up our sleeves, but it was stopping us which the opposition found so difficult."

There will be some nostalgia but little charity at the Reebok Stadium when Bolton play host to Norwich. The Canaries manager, Bruce Rioch, returns to the club he guided into the Premiership in 1995 for the first time at their new stadium, which the former Scottish international helped to design.

"I was consulted when they were designing the stadium, so I should know my way around," Rioch said. "It's my first time back as a manager at the Reebok but I don't feel I've got anything to prove."

Rioch's former assistant, Colin Todd, is concentrated on extending his side's 11-match unbeaten run rather than the return of the Wanderers' prodigal. "That Bruce used to manage this club has no bearing on the match," Todd said. "The issue is that we're playing against a decent team. The ball is the same as it is every other week."

Brian Horton, newly installed at Port Vale, is preparing for his first game in charge, but even after years of experience he admits he could not have asked for a more tricky opening game than the trip to fifth-placed Ipswich. "Training's been good but it's matches that you want to be involved with and I can't wait," said Horton, whose new side are second bottom.

"But that said, I couldn't get a much tougher start. They have been one of the best in the division for two or three years now and George Burley has got a great blend between youth and experience."

There will be another reunion, perhaps less amicable, at The Hawthorns where the former West Bromwich manager, Alan Buckley, returns with Grimsby. He is, understandably, doing his best to diffuse any conflict: "It doesn't matter one bit to me, I'll let them worry about it. All I'm concerned about is the football match."

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