As the final whistle blew on Tuesday night I felt blank, with my partner annoyed at my short-tempered response to anything reasonable and the dog steering clear of the room where I had spent the last 90 minutes ranting and venting.
I, like every Sunderland fan out there, must have thought we knew what rock bottom felt like. When the Lads fell to a 2-1 defeat to Burton in 2018, relegating the club to League One in the process, we had reached what we had naively presumed to be the lowest of lows.
The club was in free-fall. Then-owner Ellis Short was absent, looking to sell the club at the nearest opportunity. The vastly-disliked Martin Bain the frontman, overseeing the demise and cutting costs. The fans were apathetic, begging for new ownership. A new start. Hope.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven came in, and to their credit the place was revitalised. Important financial decisions were made and we were back on safe land. There was a feeling around the place not seen since Sam Allardyce’s tenure or the Keane era. We were all together, as one - a club with everyone pulling in the same direction.
Fast-forward a year and six months. Another 2-1 defeat to Burton later and Sunderland find themselves in a position not too dissimilar to April 2018 - lost, and on a downward spiral.
Since the Play-Off Final defeat we have felt like a club in limbo. A rudderless boat, drifting away. Murmurs about summer transfer dealings being held up thanks to the failed takeover bid from Mark Campbell didn’t help. The uncertainty in a vital transfer window wasn’t necessary - especially if you factor in Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald declaring investment was only needed when the club reached the Championship.
The second set of serious takeover/investment talks throughout the campaign has been an underlying distraction - a by-thought on the mind of the supporters desperate for positivity and a lifeline. The uncertainty hasn’t been helped by Stewart Donald’s untimely mid-season break, during a period where the club is desperate for a chief leading from the front.
In fact, the clamour for Stewart Donald or another body to lead the football side of things has been apparent for a significant amount of time.
After his exit, Jack Ross spoke candidly about the lack of support and structure throughout his time at the club, insinuating that he needed help from those above him. In his first interview post-sacking with The Athletic, he said:
At a club of Sunderland’s size, do you need support? Yeah, I think you do. The structure of the club was never where I wanted it to be, although that’s not to say I’m right.
Ultimately, there are a lot of people who have outlasted me. But it was a great experience in terms of what do you need above and below you to make it work.
On the Roker Rapport Podcast on Sunday, BBC Newcastle reporter Nick Barnes echoed this. Reciting a previous conversation he had with the club’s former manager, Barnes explained just one instance the lack of leadership at the top hindered Ross.
He felt like he was left a little bit marooned by the club in the structural sense. There was no chief executive to take a lot of the weight off his shoulders for the stuff he was doing behind the scenes.
His working day would end up, for example, on the training pitch till 12’o’clock, straight off the training pitch to do a press conference ahead of the game that could take two hours and then suddenly he’d find a group of visitors had turned up at the Academy of Light that needed to be shown around for three hours.
Then he said, ‘I didn’t get to sit down around with my coaches until 5 in the evening to try and discuss what team we’d put out at the weekend’.
The task Stewart Donald has undertaken, in buying Sunderland and bringing a fallen club back to its feet, is enormous and that can’t be downplayed. He recently stated that his working week for Sunderland hit 70 hours per week to clean up years of mess passed down to him by Ellis Short. For that, I thank him and applaud him.
However, the club has drifted in recent months.
The feeling of uncertainty lingers - a lack of any real stability, an action plan of sorts, is missing. If stories like the above are indeed correct, the way he’s allowed the football operating parts of the club to be neglected and run unmanned is disappointing.
The club is crying out for a leader, whether that be Donald himself or someone in a senior role. We need a football man who understands the club and its fanbase - a man who can provide the structures a manager wants, allowing him to fully focus on football.
We need a plan, a strict identity going forwards that suits the football club, one that Sunderland fans can see evolve season after season. A leader gives us that - a man that can pick up the pieces when managers come and go and continue to strive for our long-term goals.
Stewart Donald has arrived at a pivotal juncture in his Sunderland journey. The club needs stability, a recognisable master plan with policies that supporters can identify with. He needs to roll up his sleeves and lead this club from the front or find a man who can. Otherwise, he’ll risk watching his investment continue to falter.