Sunderland's truly appalling home form can end under Chris Coleman
It has been a maddening 12 months in which Sunderland have occasionally been outclassed but too often the architects of their own downfall.
Certainly, this season has been a litany of missed opportunities.
One of the greatest frustrations for supporters has been that on only a handful of occasions have Sunderland been totally outplayed.
Leeds were set up well and exposed the weakspots in Simon Grayson’s side; Cardiff City were powerful in midfield and overran a leggy home team.
Too often, however, the Black Cats have pushed the self-destruct button. Against Bolton, they finally took the lead with a superb team goal, only to chuck it away within minutes.
Two goalkeeping errors surrendered two points against a woeful Millwall side, while a defensive error gifted the win to a Nottingham Forest side who had offered precious little in attack.
It has become a psychological burden that shows no sign of being cleared.
Certainly, it cannot be explained away merely as a hangover from relegation.
Sunderland’s record of four points from 10 home Championship games is plumbing new depths and, if they continue at this rate, they are on course to set the worst home points per game ratio for many a season in the second tier.
There is a school of thought that the sheer weight of expectation of playing in such an arena is a problem for the players, and that the prospect of sealing a famous victory boosts opponents.
The feeling has been that for sides low on confidence after a relegation season, playing away from the home glare, without the pressure to force the issue, is easier. Statistically, it is something of a myth.
It was not a problem for Aston Villa last season, whose form at home was the eighth best in the league. Norwich City were also seen as a prized scalp, but their home form was outstanding, averaging 2.13 points per game at Carrow Road. Of course, those sides invested heavier than Sunderland and Villa benefited from a takeover that lifted the mood and brought some unity and momentum to the club.
Still, it has generally been the case that, even for sides struggling financially, home form has been a bulwark in the first season back in the Championship.
Cardiff City found themselves in dire straits after dropping out of the Premier League but still averaged 1.5 points per game at home. It was the same for Bolton in the 2012/13 season, where they struggled away but secured a superb two points per game at the then Reebok Stadium. In those cases, it was the home form that kept them from the abyss.
This, then, is a uniquely Sunderland problem and, at the moment, they are trailing the worst league seasons in recent memory. Even Rotherham, relegated with 23 points last season, picked up 0.7 points per game at home.
In 2013/14, Birmingham mustered a woeful 0.6 points per game, but even that exceeds Sunderland’s current average of 0.4.
Ahead of two crunch home games, there are cautious grounds for optimism.
After all, despite the team’s woes, attendances have held relatively strong and it is worth noting that, officially at least, the 27,000 who attended a buoyant Molineux last Saturday was similar to the numbers to have filtered through the turnstiles on Wearside this season.
Fans have been remarkably patient throughout the campaign and the almighty din made by the 30,000 crowds in Roy Keane’s first season shows that an intimidating atmosphere can be created without a full house.
There are legitimate debates to be had about changing the home routine to break the groundhog day feel, perhaps closing the sparse top tier or breaking with the traditional pre-match music.
Fundamentally, however, boss Coleman needs to find a way to block out the mental burden the squad are clearly feeling, particularly when they go behind in games.
The signs against Reading two weeks ago were encouraging. The Black Cats did not play with a great tempo in the first half but had the courage of their convictions to remain patient and, had they gone in with a one-goal lead, it could have been the result that truly ignited Coleman’s tenure.
Against Wolves last week, they were superbly disciplined and that should serve as a major confidence boost ahead of the arrival of Fulham and, next weekend, Birmingham City.
It has been an arduous, galling year.
If Sunderland are to avoid the Championship trapdoor, they will know that solving their home form is the number one issue.
An easy problem to identify, an altogether harder one to solve.