A lot can change in a year. Indeed, in football, a lot can change in a week.
Twelve months ago, Martin O'Neill breezed through the main doors of the Stadium of Light like a breathe of fresh air. Where storm clouds had enveloped the end of the Steve Bruce era, the appointment of the experienced Ulsterman was welcomed almost unanimously, with red and whites far and wide rejoicing at the sight of the arrival of a man they had long cherished.
A year on, that rejoicing has subsided. In its place are the same old worries, with the lingering threat of relegation - a threat plenty felt had been banished for good - once again peeking over the precipice. The early success of the Martin O'Neill reign has petered out dramatically; in its stead, Sunderland once more find themselves struggling at the wrong end of the top level of English football.
The inevitable calls from those at the back of the room have come thick and fast. Some see no way out for this O'Neill side, arguing that the manager's immediate dismissal is necessary if the club wishes to prolong its Premier League status. Others, though not yet advocating a change in the dugout, are perennially wary. Too many times has a false dawn risen over the River Wear. If O'Neill doesn't sort this out soon, they reason, Ellis Short will be given no choice other than to dismiss the man upon whom so much hope was placed.
For what it's worth (probably not very much), I fall into neither of those categories. In fact, in a recent Roker Report podcast, I asserted that I would not relieve O'Neill of his duties even if the club were to be relegated at this season's end. That initial viewpoint was lost in the myriad of bollocks we all talk on the podcast - but I stand by it.
To plenty, this will seem crazy. Maybe it is, but hear me out.
Firstly, let us assume O'Neill is dismissed. Right, fair enough, but who replaces him? Many people's second favourite this time last year was Mark Hughes but, given his disaster at QPR, surely 'Sparky' is well down the pecking order now. The problem is, we are left with few other choices when we look at those managers currently out of work. Alan Curbishley is four years out of the game. Roberto Di Matteo fluked his way to two trophies last season and remains relatively inexperienced. Walter Smith's only foray into English football saw him unable to position Everton in the top ten in three years, and ended with the club on the brink of relegation before David Moyes came in and steadied the ship.
The club could look abroad, yes, but the risks here are all too clear to see. Especially if an untried foreigner is thrust into a perceived relegation battle. Put simply, sacking O'Neill now would be ludicrous, for no other reason than there is no one readily available to replace him.
Say Sunderland were relegated at this season's end - something I don't expect to happen, given that I believe O'Neill will be allowed to strengthen his meagre midfield in January - how then could we feasibly offer the Irishman our backing?
Well, for a start, it may break a cycle we are in danger of entering. Steve Bruce was appointed to bring the club to the next level. Having achieved a thirteen placed finish, then improved to tenth (just), the bottom fell out of his Wearside career and he was sacked when relegation became a real fear. Although the process has been quickened under O'Neill, sacking the current manager now would be under the same circumstances. Then, whomever we manage to bring in, I am in no doubt that the same cycle would be repeated. Sunderland may avoid the ignominy of relegation, but the club would remain mired in a cycle of motionless mediocrity.
Of course, at first, this seems a far better alternative than relegation. Demotion now would be disastrous for the club; a kick in the teeth of the work of Niall Quinn, Drumaville, and Ellis Short. Yet, their return would be secured in a single year - the club has long proven itself good enough to comfortably achieve promotion. There may be a feeling of going back to square one; but sometimes one step backwards is needed in order for future progress to be attained.
The merits of such a strategy may seem unclear at first but, in giving O'Neill time, it allows him to build a long-term ethos for the club. Too many clubs, Sunderland included, actively engage in short-termism. Any bad run is denounced as a club in crisis. Any faltering manager is on the brink of unemployment. Giving Martin O'Neill five years - regardless of the depths they may contain - would at least allow him fair time to try and build not just a squad for the here and now, but a club for the future long after he has left.
As stated, I don't believe relegation will occur this season. However, if the club survives by the skin of its teeth, there may remain calls for O'Neill to go. This would be the wrong option. Remember, David Moyes very nearly took Everton down but, in sticking with him, the Toffees have grown into an impressive Premier League outfit, even without the embarrassment of riches many clubs enjoy. There is no guarantee this would be the case at Sunderland, but we could do a lot worse than to - finally - embrace long-term ideals that few clubs, other than those at the top, seem capable of mirroring.