Reid wrestling with Sunderland's status

Football: North-east football is booming - except at Roker Park. Glenn Moore talked to the man charged with reviving the forgotten giants
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As St James' Park sat gripped by the Premiership's first North- east derby on Wednesday night, one could have forgiven it for being so intoxicated by its own duel as to forget absent friends. Not a bit of it. When play briefly lulled, the public address made an appeal for a car to be moved from a nearby entrance. The car was a Nissan and, from the baying Gallowgate End, and the red-shirted pocket of Middlesbrough fans, there came derisory boos.

The Nissan factory is based in Sunderland and to be merely driving one is thus seen, to supporters of Newcastle and Boro, as an act of treason.

This was a fleeting moment of interest in their neighbours' affairs. When the match finished Newcastle fans were more concerned with Leeds' draw at Southampton than Sunderland's at Port Vale.

Poor Sunderland. While Newcastle and Middlesbrough enjoy the Premiership party, Sunderland are left outside, peering jealously through the window. The fear on Wearside is that this position may become a permanent one.

Roker Park is 12 miles from St James' Park - and three decades behind. Apart from the graffiti Roker looks tidy on the outside but, open the doors, and it is like stepping into a time-warp. From the tiny foyer a stand-alone staircase winds up to the offices. On one wall is a white- painted breeze-blocks frieze, on the others, pink flock wallpaper quietly peels. It is so much like walking into the set of a 1960s movie you half expect to see David McCallum or Susan George in the corridors.

Instead you meet a stocky but athletic pixie-faced man with an avuncular smile that hides a hard edge. As a player Peter Reid was a busy bundle of grit, wit and determination. Now, as Sunderland's fifth manager in four years, he is attempting to instill those qualities in his players.

Reid will not say so but it is not so much a hot seat he has been handed as a poisoned chalice. To the north lies Newcastle, with their magnificently redeveloped ground and pounds 14m worth of new players. To the south is Middlesbrough, complete with a gleaming new stadium and the pounds 5.25m Nick Barmby.

In between there is a once-great club which has allowed the ground and team to crumble while it pursues its own dreams of a new beginning. So far these have not gone further than selecting sites, building scale models, then having the plans rejected. The latest is for a 34,000-capacity ground at Wearmouth. But since it is sited on a disused colliery, complicated and expensive engineering may be required. Work may start in February. As for the team, they were relegated to the then Third Division for the first time in 1987 and, but for Reid's arrival last March, would probably have been so again in May. Apart from the famed 1973 FA Cup triumph, Sunderland have not won anything for more than 50 years.

Still, their position in relation to their neighbours is something of a surprise. After dropping to the Third they recovered so well under Denis Smith that they reached the old First Division in 1990. Five years ago, as the Newcastle programme noted, Sunderland were beating Manchester United in the old First Division while Newcastle and Middlesbrough were in the Second.

Since then, while Sir John Hall and Steve Gibson have transformed those clubs, Sunderland have been standing still. The current majority owner, Bob Murray, is heavily criticised locally for his lack of investment and has offered to step aside if a red and white knight appears. Meanwhile, the club's finances stagnate while the gap between Endsleigh and Premier grows ever larger. It is Reid's task to bridge that gap, and not with a cheque book.

He has spent some money this summer, though: pounds 100,000 on Paul Bracewell and pounds 40,000 (rising to pounds 215,000) on the Burnley striker, John Mullin. An attempt to spend pounds 600,000 on Brad Friedel has been thwarted by work- permit problems and the American goalkeeper yesterday signed for Galatasaray instead.

That leaves them still needing a goalkeeper and, according to one local journalist, a central defender, a midfield creator and a goalscorer to support the impressive Phil Gray.

The real problem would come in upgrading the side if promotion was achieved. Sunderland have begun well in their pursuit of that aim, considering the quality of their early opposition - Wolves (won), Leicester (lost), Norwich and Vale (both drawn). Today they visit Ipswich.

"I have some cash available," Reid said, "though not as much as I would like. But, as a manager, I have to work within those restrictions. I have not got big dough, but Bolton didn't have last year and they went up. I have good, solid professionals and exciting talents in Martin Smith and Craig Russell.

"I cannot worry about Newcastle and Middlesbrough. If I did that I would not be able to do this job. I think it is brilliant for the area - good luck to them. I played for Everton when Liverpool were doing well, and I was manager of Manchester City when United were doing well, so it is not new to me."

At City Reid guided the club to fifth, fifth and ninth before being sacked four matches into the 1993/94 season. They have since come 16th and 17th and are bottom at present. "He [Peter Swales, the former chairman] was an interesting man to work for. But I am not bitter - you can see that," he added genuinely.

As a player he was one of the key figures in Everton's mid-1980s revival, having joined the club after an injury-blighted career at Bolton. As a manager he has surrounded himself with respected men like Bobby Saxton, a pre-Jack Walker manager of Blackburn, and Bryan "Pop" Robson, who has been prised away from Manchester United's youth system to re-invigorate Sunderland's.

"I try to do things my way, with my people, and I am very confident in the way I do things. Given time I will do it - but, within football management, sometimes, time is at a premium. The supporters here want success and they want it overnight. So do I - but I know it might take a little bit longer. Some people understand that but, come Saturday, the passion and belief that demands we are in the Premiership comes out. If I was standing with them I would feel the same."

The support is still impressive. Roker Park - which is so dated it still has standing on all sides and one of those alphabetic half-time scoreboards - had the third highest attendances in the division last year - 15,344. Still Sunderland are being left behind. A Love Supreme, the Sunderland fanzine, warns in its latest issue that kids in Sunderland can now be seen wearing the colours of "Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool, even Blackburn, for God's sake! And ... Newcastle." There is real concern that a generation of supporters from the "grey area" between Newcastle and Sunderland will be lost to their fashionable neighbours forever.

Back in the manager's office - which has all the customary managerial furnishings: football videos, obscure trophies and Rothmans' Yearbooks - Reid is talking about winners, about dressing room personalities who make a difference. As if on cue, the mobile phone rings and it is Andy Gray, a former team-mate at Everton.

"We were just talking about you," Reid said. "Dodgy knees, no pace. But what a player to have in the dressing room!"

Gray has rejected management for television but Reid is absorbed by it. "I love it. I never switch off. I might have a nice Italian meal and a bottle of wine but then I will start talking football. But, compared to playing, it is an absolute nightmare. I wish I could still run about.

"I have had the sack, I know what it is like. At the end of the day that is all they can do. I am here on a two-year contract. I have moved here but it is not long enough to risk taking my daughter out of school. And someone else might benefit from the work with the youth team. But you have to do it. I hope I last, if not I can always leave with my conscience clear."