MICK McCARTHY last night begged long-suffering Sunderland fans not to turn their back on the club as season ticket prices were frozen for the fourth successive season.

With Sunderland's moneymen nervously awaiting a possible supporter backlash following their disastrous relegation, McCarthy appealed to the Stadium of Light faithful to help make their ground a First Division fortress.

Fans aged under 12 will be able to watch Sunderland's 23 home Nationwide League games for just £95, with the most expensive season ticket costing £435.

After thousands of supporters delivered a humiliating snub to Peter Reid by refusing to renew their season tickets 12 months ago, the debt-crippled Black Cats cannot afford a repeat this summer.

The situation triggered Sunderland manager McCarthy into making a personal plea to the club's "real fans" - the same people that booed off his players following the last game of the season, against Arsenal three weeks ago.

He said: "I want to make this stadium one where others fear to tread and with your fantastic support, combined with a level of performance I know we are capable of, I firmly believe we can achieve this together.

"By renewing your season ticket and giving me your support week in week out, you'll be helping me in the best way possible towards the goal of immediate promotion.

"I realise I have a major rebuilding job on my hands but it's a challenge I'm relishing. This is a proper football club with real fans.

"Their support in adversity was fantastic and I'd like to turn our fortunes around for them.

"We've got some good young players coming through, such as Sean Thornton and Richie Ryan, as well as some talented footballers who I'd like to hold on to.

"I'm confident that, come the start of the season, I'll have a squad capable of challenging for the First Division title."

Fans will receive season ticket renewal packs next week, though the brutal realisation that the calibre of Sunderland's opposition has plummeted may only hit home when the fixtures for the 2003-04 campaign are published on June 19.

Mark Tearney, assistant editor of Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme, said: "The price for some season tickets works out at £14 or £15 a game, which is quite cheap by modern standards.

"But after last season's shambles, it would be more appropriate if the club paid fans £14 or £15 a game.

"You can't blame people for not renewing their season tickets, and the club made a rod for their own back with the football they played last season and by disappointing fans in the past.

"The general consensus among fans is: what's the club's excuse going to be this time?

"Last season, they promised an inquest and reshuffle, and people are looking forward to seeing what the club says this year."

Meanwhile, Sunderland's reserve team coach Jocky Scott has told £5m duo Nicolas Medina and John Oster they have a bright Wearside future - if they improve their attitude.

Medina has never played in the Premiership for Sunderland, while Oster, a summer transfer target for Cardiff City, made just five appearances for the club last season.

But both players impressed as the Black Cats' second string won their title, and Scott reckons they could play a key role in steering the club out of Division One.

He said: "Nicolas Medina is one of the players pushing to break into the first team. We liked what he showed in the last few reserve games. He gave some good performances in terms of his ability, and he also started to show it in terms of his attitude and his commitment.

"John Oster has also proved what ability he has. He's a player who needs to get his attitude and commitment right in every game.

"He did that in the last few weeks of the season and hopefully that's a good sign for the future.

"There are others who have already broken through and played really well, such as Richie Ryan, and there are more to come from the Academy of Light.

"Neil Teggart, Patrick Collins and others have played in the reserves and shown they can handle it. I'm looking for them to become important players next season."

* Sunderland striker Tore Andre Flo has issued a 'come and get me' plea to Spanish club Real Betis.

Flo said: "I think that Real Betis were interested in me last season but I never spoke to them.

But I would go there, that's for sure."

Read more about Sunderland here.