It’s do or die. Sunderland must beat Bolton tonight to ensure Simon Grayson clings onto his position at the Stadium of Light. Or so logic dictates.
Black Cats chief executive Martin Bain surely dare not travel to Teesside at the weekend with the man he plucked from Preston at the helm should Grayson prove unable to find a way past the Wanderers from Lancashire this evening.
Middlesbrough await Sunderland on Sunday in a Tees-Wear derby which may yet see a new fave in the Black Cats’ dugout.
It’s now twelve long weeks since Sunderland won a league game - with their paltry single three-pointer coming in mid-August.
The schools were in the midst of their summer shutdown the last time the Black Cats put in a match winning performance in the Championship. Half a term has passed since then, with Halloween the backdrop for this latest attempt to kick-start a frightening season. And don't even mention the fact we can equal English football's win-less home record tonight.
Simon Grayson insisted that Sunderland were the better team in defeat to Bristol City on Saturday, and in truth his side played well enough - though only for about a third of the game.
Long periods of the match passed with the lads in red-and-white seemingly befuddled as to the roles they were supposed to be playing, interspersed by some bright passages of play perhaps in spite of the manager’s instructions rather than because of them.
The Black Cats’ boss was quick to point the finger at his players after the game, and tonight is as much a test of Grayson’s ability to get a reaction from his men as anything else.
Bolton arrive unbeaten in three and very nearly snatched a victory at Fulham at the weekend to draw level with Sunderland above them on points. A 94th minute equaliser from Tom Cairney at the death denied Phil Parkinson’s men a second win of the season.
Former Newcastle bit-part Sammy Ameobi was on the score sheet at Craven Cottage and is the Trotters joint top-scorer with two to his name alongside Adam Armstrong, on loan from St James Park, and Gateshead-born striker Gary Madine.
Other North East connections in the opposition ranks this evening include ex-Sunderland goalie Ben Alnwick and former Middlesbrough defender David Wheater.
An improving opposition is of course the last thing Sunderland need tonight in a game being billed both as a ‘must win’ and ‘surely can win’. Whoever loses this one must prepare for an enormous psychological test to lift themselves to face what comes next, and many will doubt whether the failing Black Cats have that resolve within them.
Grayson has insisted Jason Steele is the best goalie at the club, but risking the so far awful summer signing in such a career-defining clash is surely too much for the sake of stubbornness?
Tyias Browning is the only notable absentee as the Sunderland boss again has a near-full strength squad from which to pick. Marc Wilson may be finally available at centre-half as Grayson must stumble upon a back four fit for purpose.
So Grayson has options for this one in defence and in midfield. Will he shove Wilson and McNair in? Ruiter must start.
Ruiter; Matthews; Kone; Wilson; Oviedo; McNair; Ndong; Williams; McGeady; Watmore; Grabban.
There's a real nagging doubt developing that this weak Sunderland side won't be able to deal with the pressure. A draw helps neither side and certainly not Simon Grayson, so I'll plump for it.
Sunderland 1 Bolton 1.