Tomorrow night’s game between Sunderland and Bolton feels notable. The two sides presently second-bottom and bottom of the second tier will battle it out to avoid being the one who begins November at the foot of the table.
A new low yet awaits the Black Cats perhaps - a club who most recently found themselves positioned last in the Championship back in August 2006. But things feel different now to even how they felt back then eleven years ago - somehow everything feels altogether more forlorn and increasingly ominous.
When Sunderland slumped to the foot of the Championship over a decade ago following a 3-1 defeat at Southend, then-manager Niall Quinn spoke of a “losing mentality” at the club and the players were jeered off by the travelling fans with cries of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt”. Sound familiar?
Worse was to come days later with a defeat at Bury in the Carling Cup - the side then bottom of the Football League - and the parallels between then and now certainly exist. But then there was still hope and an energised chairman had arrived at a stadium which was still shiny, the home of a club which felt like it retained a certain verve and would return to better days with the right management.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2017 and it feels like an awfully dark winter is still to descend upon the Stadium of Light. The ground itself looks shabby and unkempt. Bars on the concourse have been closed and staff let go. The matchday experience is a half-hearted affair, with precious cheer and little attention to detail.
When the custodians of the club appear not to care, why should anyone else?
Sunderland are saddled with debt, with an absent owner and with costs being slashed presumably to keep the club’s significant creditors quiet. Crowds have dwindled and those who remain watch on in silence as groundhog day pans out at the Stadium of Light once or twice a fortnight.
There will be no Roy Keane-esque revival this season and a return to the third-tier looks alarmingly possible without an upswing in performance, output and perhaps fortune.
It’s become something of a routine for the twenty-thousand hardy souls who remain. The former hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck Profkiev overture now resembles a funeral march and drags on too long before a polite round of applause greets the Sunderland XI selected to play out the latest miserable effort.
Games continually follow the same pattern, and the lads in red-and-white start brightly before the opposition strike somewhere midway through the first half. Faint hope resurfaces with a Sunderland equaliser, before the inevitable sucker punch or inability to find a winner gives way to a shuffle off down Sheepfolds and the relief it’s all over for another week.
This is Dystopian - a dehumanised football club which is not in a good place. There is little hope of any improvement any time soon and those in charge of Sunderland AFC barely even try to pretend that things will get better.
An unpopular chief executive oversees the wreck, handed full control by the owner of the club who has repatriated himself fully back into the USA. There is little to warm to in Martin Bain’s forced efforts to address the people who belong to Sunderland.
Recent attempts to present himself as merely a man carrying out an unpopular task have done little to bolster his dwindling stock.
This is 1987.
This feels like Sunderland are heading to their lowest point since relegation to the Third Division over three decades ago. Two famous old clubs will battle it out tomorrow night in a bid to stave off the threat of League One.
The match will likely be watched by the lowest crowd to take in a league game at the Stadium of Light this century. It will be a surprise if there are more than 20,000 inside the twenty-year-old ground.
There is something in the air. It feels like the slump hasn’t bottomed out yet. Whatever it is, this oppressive malevolent cloud which hovers over the former Wearmouth Colliery, it has a while before it clears.
Unable or unwilling to address the real issues, the media talk of a ferocious home crowd, in front of whom sub-standard footballers can not raise their game. Misleading or misdirecting the debate, something will have to give soon without improvement on the pitch and off it. The fans are not the issue and never have been.
Sunderland may still slump further - yet the fall from grace which has so far been alarming could have been foreseen to this point perhaps. Spending next to nothing and appointing a manager unable to stamp his authority on the bottlers and shirkers who remain from last season who are now accompanied by the unfit and unfulfilled who arrived in the summer. It was always going to lead to struggle.
That manager went on record last week to say he expects to be handed a “reasonable” budget in January to strengthen his squad. But this is the same individual who boasted of a “competitive” spend in the summer which has left his side anything but competitive.
Sacking him will impact on cash-flow and so hinder what paltry sum his successor receives after Christmas; keeping him runs the risk of results failing to improve and outright revolt kicking off inside and outside of the ground.
That dismal forecast coupled with a downplaying zeal rarely seen in professional sport - the Sunderland AFC ‘message’ - to perpetually quash expectation and talk down the club’s prospects can only lead one way: further down still.
Sunderland will need to gain a minimum of a further 40 points - perhaps more - from the thirty-two games which remain to avoid relegation to League One. That probably means needing to win more than a third of them. Lose to Bolton and it will already feel like the game is up.