So, here we are, at the business end (or what feels more like the fag end) of Sunderland AFC’s fourth consecutive season in League One.
Despite such an inconsistent mess of a season – most of which has been self-inflicted – this frustrating season is still very much alive, for now.
Given what has gone on since early January, god only knows how.
A season of points thrown away, player mismanagement, overly drawn out managerial appointments, a truly bizarre January transfer window and let’s leave it at “difficulties over the ownership” have made this such a ridiculous season in so, so many ways.
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
When we cast our minds back to August, when we beat Wigan Athletic, we were armed with the vibrancy of youth, a long-term plan and that intangible thing that we had dreamt about – a philosophy.
Everything that we had been crying out for since we fell into this league of journeymen.
The philosophy is what had been promised, and we perhaps naively assumed that it had been delivered.
However, it never could have been.
These things don’t happen in one or two transfer windows, they take years.
The cracks started to open quite widely by late autumn. No matter – we were twitchy back then – but we were winning enough games and playing enough good football to stay in touch, that was until the defeats became too heavy and too frequent.
So, here we are, there are seven games to save a season but, to me, it feels much more important than that.
There is a new manager, a man so far, seemingly borne of pragmatism, a straight talker rather than a romantic.
Alex Neil’s Sunderland, to date, isn’t one to get us off our seats. But it isn’t one of defensive incompetence either. Some of his selections make us scratch our heads, but they are there to steady the ship, to fill the gaping holes and to get results – and that’s all that counts now.
The results under Neil have been mixed, they could have been better – we have experienced worse.
Now, after what feels like an interminably long international break, we should be ready to have a real go.
Luke O’Nien has had a decent run after injury, Dan Neil and Callum Doyle have had a well needed rest, Alex Pritchard and Nathan Broadhead are expected to be back. Add in Clarke and Roberts reaching match sharpness then we should be looking up.
All of those are top players at this level, and that is far more important than the recent distraction of Jermain Defoe’s farcical retirement announcement.
This run of seven games – and hopefully the three that will follow – just feel so important for the entire future of this football club.
Four years in this league have seen heartbreak in year one, COVID diverted our attention in years two and three and this year, year four, given our advantages, should have been our big chance to escape.
We can’t cock it up – after been given so many chances - while there is still an opportunity.
If we think ahead, which is always dangerous in this game, if we fail to go up, a further year in what feels like an increasingly tough league one leaves the feeling of a wrench deep in the gut.
The novelty has gone, the struggle remains. Will we have the dominant budget in this league next season? I fear that for the first time that we might not. Will our best chances have passed us by? What happens then? Can the club survive in something resembling its current form?
I don’t know that it can or whether it will.
Success, and what still feels like an unlikely promotion through the play offs will – if it is achieved – be a madcap end to a stupid season.
But then what happens?
Funding a team with more income, but not that much more, to be competitive in the Championship will be tough. We will find out about our owners if and – let’s pray – when that happens.
The Championship is a tough league, populated by many clubs not dissimilar in size to us.
Yes, they have debt ,but some have parachute payments, most already have good squads for the level, we have neither and our debt position is uncertain.
Never will clever and excellent recruitment be needed more than when we make the next step.
Can Kristjaan Speakman and his team deliver? They will need to.
This club can’t continue to fail, the support remains magnificent but it is fragile.
Ten years of utter ineptitude has left the club a shell of what it once was on and off the pitch. The entire place, the feeling is different to what it once was. Pride is something that we cling to rather than wear on our chests.
We need to get that back before it is too late, if it is not too late already.
The importance of this next six or seven weeks cannot be overstated, and neither can the period that will immediately follow it.
We shouldn’t really waste time thinking about our rivals, but the local environment is changing and it is changing quickly.
The Premier League will remain rich and the lower leagues will remain poor.
The stakes are so high for this club. I just hope that the first-team players, the manager and the owner appreciate what is at stake and they rise to the challenge – and not shrink under the burden of such responsibility.
We will find out soon enough.