Phil Smith looks at Sunderland, Ellis Short, Chris Coleman and a critical final 13 game run-in
Players who headed towards the away end at the Macron Stadium on Tuesday night were greeted with applause.
That has not always been the case this season, but, on this occasion, no one could quibble with their endeavour.
Black Cats manager Chris Coleman, an increasingly frustrated figure, saved his ire for the officials and looked genuinely encouraged by the performance of his team, in a 1-0 defeat to relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers.
There is absolutely no doubt that most supporters hoped that Coleman would, by this point, have pushed Sunderland away from the Championship’s bottom three and to the relative comforts of lower mid-table.
While there was a real structure and discipline about the side in most of his early games in charge, recent performances have been a bitter disappointment and increasingly eclectic team selections have reflected a manager trying to get a response from his squad and not finding it.
Perhaps that was the most frustrating element of the Bolton defeat.
Coleman’s selections looked sound, with Paddy McNair and Lamine Kone adding some much-needed strength and aerial ability to neutralise Bolton’s direct style.
The Black Cats generally coped with their opponents and had much the better of the game.
Yet, in both boxes, they lacked the ruthless streak and, in those departments, the Sunderland boss has simply not been given the tools he needs.
No team in football succeeds without a consistent goalkeeper.
Yet again, an individual error cost the Black Cats, just as it did in the reverse fixture against Bolton.
Just as it did in the home game against Millwall, just as it did in the away game at Barnsley and on countless other occasions.
In the opposition box, on-loan Middlesbrough forward Ashley Fletcher is lacking confidence and Sunderland’s woeful goalscoring record under Coleman can hardly be considered a surprise.
When the summer window shut and Sunderland had Lewis Grabban, James Vaughan and the young duoof Josh Maja and Joel Asoro at their disposal, most could see that it would not be enough.
At the end of the January window, Coleman had an even weaker hand to play, with the departures of Grabban and Vaughan.
How Sunderland have again left themselves in that position is a more pertinent question than what formation that they should set up in now.
It does not reflect well on those involved in recruitment that not one of the summer signings were included in the starting XI on Tuesday night.
Nor does it reflect well that, after chief executive Martin Bain said that the summer transfer window had seen steps taken towards building a side with greater ‘hunger’ and ‘desire’, one striker pushed for an exit months later and another spent Tuesday night goading Sunderland supporters on Twitter.
Once again, the Black Cats have been unable to bring in players either in their peak years or nearing them.
It is little wonder that so many of the signings have failed to pin down a place in the side. Like so many in recent years, they arrived with little recent first-team football under their belts.
Coleman had praise for Bain and the work done in January to get five signings through the door, but it looks increasingly like they will not be enough.
Sunderland’s transfer dealings continue to seem muddled.
Until they get that right, they will continue to slide.
Bain has yet to oversee a successful window (in football terms, not financial), and that is a real concern.
Of course, he operates with severe restrictions what will fundamentally shift the needle on that front and so many others is the sale of the club.
It is unquestionably in this area that Sunderland’s future, regardless of whether they are a League One or a Championship team, will be settled.
Coleman caused a stir with his comments regarding Ellis Short earlier in the week, but no one could quibble with the words themselves.
The Sunderland boss was speaking honestly and directly reflecting the supporters’ concerns, something he has done right from day one and something for which he deserves credit.
While some may questions his tactics, his leadership and ebullience has been an absolute breath of fresh air and few who have spent time with him doubt that he could haul the club back to better days.
A miracle worker, he is not.
To get the Black Cats going, the former Wales boss needs to be able to sign players of vastly improved athleticism and energy, but with experience of competitive football.
That requires some level of investment.
Coleman does not think conventionally when picking his jobs and he still sees Sunderland as a challenge worth taking on, but he needs help.
Sunderland need new ownership, a new energy and a drive from the top of the club to reflect that of the manager.
It is not as simple as finding someone who can hand over £50million to Short.
There is, as is well known, a significant debt to a third party that must be repaid or refinanced in the coming 18 months.
Any new owners would have to be able to take on that commitment, with the club’s own revenue streams falling.
Then, you have to consider the significant sum that would have to be spent to make the squad fit for purpose.
Few players in the current set-up could command significant fees and so any new owner would have to stump up the lion’s share of the cash for the overhaul.
There are many positives to buying Sunderland.
The infrastructure is already there and the wage bill, while still significant at this level, is coming down.
It nevertheless needs someone with significant power to invest over and above the fee that would secure the club.
Short’s biggest responsibility, if he sells, will be making sure it is to someone who has that.
So the path plotted by the Sunderland support and Coleman himself is the right one.
Will petitions and open letters change Short’s approach, given that he is already minded to sell?
No, but most fans know that.
Their view is, why choose apathy?
Why not show off the collective pride and passion of the Sunderland support and the untapped potential that brings?
For Coleman, the bigger debates continue to play second fiddle to the relegation scrap.
He has not shirked the contentious issues since arriving in November, but he will try to control the controllables and, while most see Sunderland as heading for the drop, there is still a surmountable gap and the Black Cats boss still believes he can bridge it.
In the long-term, so much is unclear, but one thing we can be farly certain of is that he is not the kind of person to stand by and allow irretrievable drift to set in.
We can and must continue to ask quesitons of tactics, recruitment and culture.
Sunderland’s future rests fundamentally in Short’s hands, however.
Somehow he needs to find the right owners or soften his stance in the summer, no matter what division the Black Cats are in.
The next 13 Championship games are absolutely critical, but what follows will be truly defining.