SUNDERLAND are to freeze season ticket prices next season - even though admission revenue at the Stadium of Light only covers two thirds of the spiralling bill for players' wages.

And chairman Bob Murray has again pledged grassroots fans will never be priced out of watching their favourite team in action.

Sunderland caused a few raised eyebrows in the Premiership last season by cutting admission charges when other clubs were being forced to hike up prices because of huge increases in transfer fees and wage costs.

Fans' champion Murray, who was the leading light in the move from Roker Park to the new stadium, has maintained that supporters will always receive priority at the Wearside club - and it is his goal to maintain sell-out crowds.

He said: "Our decision underpins the club's commitment to its fans and its desire to reward their loyalty.

"Sunderland Football Club has a policy of delivering affordable, accessible football and as a result of this has the third highest home attendance in the Premier League.

"The price freeze for 2002-03 guarantees that Sunderland fans will once again benefit from last year's reduced prices."

Last season Sunderland took the innovative step of introducing special prices for under-12s, under-16s and under-22s as well of bringing in an across-the-board reduction in season ticket prices - and fans responded by filling the ground to its increase capacity of over 48,000.

Murray said: "The club regularly sees crowds of over 48,000 at home games and although some other Premier League clubs achieve bigger gate receipts from attendances nearer 30,000, Sunderland is dedicated to its volume over price policy, with prices from just £5, and to continued sell-out crowds at the Stadium of Light."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Under-21 international goalkeeper Michael Ingham has agreed to join Second Division leaders Stoke City on a month's loan and could make his debut in tonight's top-of-the-table clash against Cardiff City at the Britannia Stadium.

The Potteries club, whose first choice keeper Gavin Ward is out of action with a groin injury, asked Sunderland for Ingham after failing in their bid to sign Blackburn Rovers' Australian keeper John Filan.

Ingham, who played in Sunderland's 4-2 Worthington Cup defeat at Sheffield Wednesday in September, said: "This is a great opportunity for me as Stoke are going well at the moment.

"I have been looking to go out on loan for a while and this is a chance for me to gain valuable experience."

* Sunderland have allowed defender Mark Maley to extend his loan at York City until the end of the season, with the 20-year-old former England Schoolboys captain joining his Wearside clubmate Michael Proctor at Bootham Crescent until May.

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