Can you remember 4 August 2018? It was a bright, sunny summers day in Sunderland.
The new red seats in the Stadium of Light represented a new start for the club, with the Sky Sports cameras present to show what was supposed to be the beginning of the resurgence of a new Sunderland, as we took on Charlton Athletic in League One.
After the misery of successive relegations in Ellis Short’s final two years of ownership, we felt that this was a fresh start. The rebuilding of the club from the bottom up was to commence, or so we thought - the club were reconnecting with a fanbase who had been sitting on its hands, with their eyes shut for two long years or more.
A manically busy transfer window had reshaped a failing squad; some of the younger players became senior players, and a mixture of experience at our new level and wild card signings were added.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven were forever on the airwaves drumming up support for the new team, which was led by what seemed to be a bright and talented young manager in Jack Ross. The new owners had successfully grabbed the attention of the supporters and media, and persuaded them to look forward rather than think about the painful recent past.
An injury time winner scored by Lynden Gooch provided a moment to rival many of the great times under Reid, Keane or Allardyce. On that day, with the sun shining on us, it really did feel like a re-setting of the club’s fortune.
The owners had a plan for self-sufficiency; they were never going to fund the excesses like Ellis Short had. They had neither the means, nor the will. This time it would be different - or so we were told. The foundations of the club were to be recast on rock, not sand, as they had been over the Drumaville and Short years.
Fast-forward to 23rd January 2021 - a cold day with an empty stadium and a narrow, scrappy win against Shrewsbury Town. Two managers gone and a team shorn of the youthful enthusiasm of Maja, Honeyman, Gooch, O’Nien and Mumba, who were present that August day - that youth replaced by journeymen footballers. The owners were still technically the same, but Donald and Methven are finally on their way out.
There have been two failed attempts at promotion. The first saw us go through heartbreak at Wembley; the second a pathetic whimper - a combination of the disaster that was Phil Parkinson and an early end to the season as Covid-19 ripped through the country, with the arbitrary points per game rule knocking us out of the playoff spots. No one really cared.
Stewart Donald regularly reminded us that we had the biggest budget in the league - by far. That was very true, but in part it was only because of what was inherited. New signings were League One level, with League One wages. We were now a League One team and a League One club. Methven did say at the outset that we needed to understand our new level - in August 2018 we never believed that we would be here nearly three years on.
The budget was stretched after the failures on the pitch. Two managers were to be paid off, high earning players - like Cattermole and Oviedo - moved on, but they cost the club money just to shift. During this time, it seemed that the club was being starved of funds. This was perhaps inevitable given the failures and the economic environment - the result as evident off the field as it was on it, as the quality of the match day experience diminished to reflect the level of football which we were now sadly becoming all too-well accustomed to.
Looking around the stadium my mind was cast back to Premier Passions, and the care and attention to detail which Sir Bob Murray and John Fickling put into creating what was at the time and for some time after the best new stadium in the country. They were by no means perfect, but they must hurt now looking at the state of their great legacy. Every part of the stadium is showing signs of disrepair, not least the once magnificent pitch.
Takeover rumours abounded from around the time of the play off defeat until now, when it seems that it has finally been sealed. Loans taken from US financiers and kids from the academy sold to raise whatever funds could be raised, but the lights were still on. Time and again, we were told the club were in great shape.
The owners have to put a positive spin on things, but the club no longer had an any of its swagger. Us against the world, defying the odds and dreaming of past achievements were gone. The fan base was back sitting on its hands, covering our eyes.
Too many draws indicated that the players had the same feeling. Belief had deserted them, fear to chase a win inherent in performances. Yet, this was still a good squad for the league.
Whatever you think of Donald and co, that is their legacy - the club has been stripped bare to the bones, with the likes of long-time kit man John Cooke cast aside to save costs, becoming a symbol of the cuts which were made just to keep the club going. But it has survived, when back in April 2018 many feared that it may not.
The rebuild - this time - seems to have a plan. The new appointments in the boardroom and at the academy feel positive. At last, we seem to be taking steps to rebuild - there are signs that the demolition job has ended. Let’s hope that this is the case, anyway.
Madrox, for ill or otherwise ,clearly gambled on a quick promotion, so they could move the club on. They failed, and we have lived the consequences of those draws and defeats in Spring 2019 ever since.
On and off the field we are miles away from challenging at the top end of the Championship. The happy days - like those of 4 August 2018 - in this Covid-ravaged world feel like a dream, but Madrox will shortly be no more, and I expect that their legacy will be limited to keeping the club just about breathing through these tumultuous times.