Is this rock bottom? Is this the moment where morale and optimism are so battered and scarred, that fans begin to throw their hands up in dismay, and begin to turn their backs on a club that somehow continues to find new ways of hurting its supporters?
As I write, in the wake of a truly morale-sapping home defeat to MK Dons, I am firmly in the mindset of ‘surely this is about as bad as it can get for Sunderland’, but with another home game against Burton on Tuesday night, a team against whom we often struggle (remember the dismal 1-2 reverse under Phil Parkinson in late 2019) there is the potential for an unpleasant situation to turn much more poisonous by 9:45pm.
At the present moment, attending games at our home stadium is, at best, a chore, and at worst, it is becoming something to dread.
The post-match walk across the Wearmouth Bridge hasn’t been a happy one for a long time, and it’s not unreasonable to question when it ever will be again. The club isn’t ‘dead’, as many have claimed, but any positivity and optimism has long since drained away, and something major has to happen in order to revive this team.
Short-term, only winning games will provide a tonic, but with the topic of Madrox now an integral part of everyday Sunderland-related conversation, the issues go beyond formations and tactics. The players, the coaching staff, and those in the boardroom all have to play a role, and at the moment, they are woefully out of sync.
This was another game in which we simply had to deliver three points after ninety minutes, and, sadly, it was yet another occasion on which the players failed dismally to rise to the challenge of playing in front of another excellent home crowd.
Indeed, when the full-time whistle blew, you simply couldn’t overlook the mixture of shock, resignation and dismay that was swirling around as the fans headed for the exits.
Pre-match, eyebrows were raised when the team sheet was published, and Trai Hume and Jack Clarke’s names were both missing from the starting XI. Both players have impressed recently, but it felt as though Alex Neil was looking to build on the Wimbledon draw with solidity and graft, rather than skill and creativity alone.
Sadly, this approach didn’t yield the performance, nor the result, that we all hoped it would, and Neil, impressively composed in his post-Wimbledon analysis, will doubtless be feeling a growing sense of urgency as his players lost more ground in what is becoming a perilous race for the playoffs.
Across the ninety minutes, there was precious little to shout about from a Sunderland point of view.
In the first half, the nervousness that has hindered our recent performances was painfully visible again, with little in the way of attacking threat and an edginess in defence that looks no nearer to being eased, regardless of which players are selected.
Against a well-drilled MK Dons outfit, our attacking options, of which there were many, found themselves running down blind alleys, with Leon Dajaku in particular enduring another difficult afternoon and Alex Pritchard completely ineffective on the wing.
Of those wearing red and white on Saturday, only the impressive Jay Matete, who has slotted in quickly and looks at home in the heart of our midfield, emerged with any real credit.
Matete is new to the club and clearly still finding his feet, but in his attitude, and his desire to put in the hard yards, he looks every inch the kind of game-breaking midfield player we have lacked for some time. Indeed, if some of his teammates could adopt his positive, no-nonsense attitude, we might not find ourselves in such a deep hole.
Mo Eisa’s opening goal, during which we were caught out by a pacy but ridiculously simple counter attack, could well have sparked a total collapse, but when Elliot Embleton delivered a cross of real quality that was flicked home by Ross Stewart, who hadn’t made a massive impact beforehand, it gave everyone hope that the match could be turned around and victory gained.
Then Connor Wickham entered the field of play.
His 76th minute winner, which felt as inevitable as night following day, was another sickener, the latest in a long line of kicks in the teeth that the past couple of months have inflicted on us.
The ex-Sunderland forward, whose four years at the club did not live up to expectations, probably had mixed feelings about scoring against us. Had the cards fallen differently, he could’ve enjoyed a much longer career on Wearside, but it was nothing short of galling to witness him scoring the goal that ultimately condemned us to defeat.
As February grinds onwards, this is a bleak time for all connected with the club. What must Jermain Defoe be thinking as he watches the games drift by with no sign of an upturn? Had he known exactly what he was being pitched into, perhaps he might have thought twice about rejoining the club, as elated as people were to welcome him back.
Results like the 5-0 thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday now feel like something from another era, and the downturn, seemingly halted after drawing with Wimbledon, has resumed in worrying fashion. If this isn’t the lowest point in our recent history, it certainly feels alarmingly close.