Reid reviving the Roker roar

Stephen Brenkley meets a manager intent on restoring Sunderland to the elite
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SINCE the halcyon age when they were the longest serving members of English football's top division, Sunderland have experienced six relegations and five promotions. In those 38 seasons they have employed 15 managers plus the odd caretaker. In the preceding 68 six were sufficient.

These statistics were barely tolerable when Newcastle were on the rollercoaster with them and Middlesbrough were in one of the carriages behind. They have now become an embarrassment bordering on an outrage.

"I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for,'' said Peter Reid. "I liked the idea of it because once I played here in front of nearly 50,000 people and never forgot what it was like for the rest of my career.''

Reid, the chirpy, energetic former midfield player, is the latest to be entrusted with the task of restoring Sunderland to their former status on a more permanent basis. Before he could come to terms with that possibility, however, he first had to keep them in the First Division. Brought in with seven games to go last season ("they must have thought I was either lucky or a miracle worker'') he ensured their survival with only one defeat. It was not pretty but it was enough for a grateful board to give him a two-year contract, pounds 1m to spend on players and the privilege of keeping anything he made on transfers. This was not quite the size of the carrot that was dangled in front of Kevin Keegan by Newcastle or even of the one placed before Brian Robson at Middlesbrough, but somehow Reid has prospered.

He has taken Sunderland into the heart of the First Division promotion race and last week his remodelled side earned a deserved FA Cup draw at Manchester United, with a squad that contained 11 of the players who performed so modestly last season. The city is already feverish. For two days last week all telephone lines to the club were perpetually engaged. Ticket queues for Tuesday's replay lasted for most of a day. Reid refuses to be affected and will entertain no discussion of whether Sunderland can repeat their feat of winning the Cup as a Second Division club in 1973, or whether it can be done again by anyone. The sparkle in his eyes as he puts his feet on his desk speaks volumes.

"I don't care about the United match,'' he said, retaining the twinkle. "That's a bonus. The League match against Norwich [this afternoon] is our most important of the season. I want to be playing Manchester United and their like every week.''

As he would have settled at the start of the season for a position in the top half of the division, this is high-falutin talk in which he did not expect to be indulging so soon. But just in case, he has already prised the most important promise of all from the board.

"We've discussed it sensibly and amicably and I've been told that if we go up there will be money available to strengthen the squad,'' he said. "The figure mentioned is pounds 10m. If it is not there neither will I be.''

Even then it may not be enough, but Reid may also be aware that in the days when Sunderland were known as the Bank of England club, money alone was not enough either. He brings to management the insistence that the game is there to be enjoyed. "If you can't have a laugh while you're doing it you may as well not do it,'' is a statement he makes every week in relating the details of his team to reporters.

The management team he has hired is clearly crucial to his way forward. While his chief coach, Paul Bracewell, was a contemporary of his in Everton's most recent period of eminence in the mid-Eighties and is still a handsome player, the other senior staff have the deep hue of experience. The chief scout Alan Durban was one of Reid's predecessors as manager, sacked just as he was beginning to fashion a side which was more than workmanlike, while the credentials of Bobby Saxton and Pop Robson are beyond question. At least once a week he phones Ian Greaves, his first manager in the game at Bolton.

"The important thing is that we all think the game should be played in the same way," Reid said. "And we know how we want to achieve those things.'' Reid and Bracewell are clearly in harmony and that twinkle in the manager's eye indicates his belief that work should be fun.

This must sometimes be difficult in the environs of Roker Park, once a citadel of the British game (and home of the Roker roar, the most feared chant in the country) but an increasingly shabby shrine to a crumbled empire. "The plans for the new stadium are coming along nicely,'' Reid said. "It should match anything that Newcastle and Middlesbrough have but we've got to have a decent team to play in it. They've got to be built together.''