As the pain from Sunderland’s relegation begins to subside a touch, thoughts turn to the summer ahead.
A time to begin The Black Cats’ renewal and rebirth, or a period of yet more turbulence?
Time will tell, but the mood is anxious. Certainly, there is a distinct sense of a club eager to start again. The end of this season cannot come soon enough.
Before then, however, four games.
So how do Sunderland approach them? Is there anything to be gained, learned, before Championship planning begins in earnest?
Three key debates will likely dominate...
Will the manager’s future be affected by what happens?
It is increasingly clear that the defining issue in David Moyes’ future will not be what has happened this season, but what will happen next season.
The key will be whether the manager feels he has enough funds to turn around his flat lining tenure, and whether owner and Chief Executive feel he remains capable of doing just that. All indications are that they retain that belief. That seems unlikely to change on the back of four games with no real issues on the line.
So it will likely fall to the manager. Does he have the stomach for the size of the task at hand? He will not learn anything about a squad he is preparing to overhaul in the next four games, but he might learn more about whether he wants to continue.
Would persistent, and perhaps even heightened, fan anger influence his decision?
Moyes has insisted he has no qualms with fan unrest but it will surely sting as he stands in the dugout. His position will become increasingly difficult if uproar does not subside.
Is it time to take a closer look at the club’s academy products?
Sunderland will need their young players to step up next year, already facing the reality of having a threadbare squad at the beginning of the nation’s most gruelling division.
Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair will almost certainly become first team regulars, when fit again. Lynden Gooch, too, presumably. Yet he has been curiously absent since returning from injury and it raises questions after Moyes was so effusive in his praise for the midfielder earlier this season.
Having had a taste of the top tier, the current situation will not faze him and it may be time for Moyes to give him another go and make a better assessment of his long-term prospects. George Honeyman is one who it would surely be wise to use in midfield. His contract expires in the summer and while earlier in the season it looked unlikely that he would stay, he increasingly looks like he could be a good squad option in the second tier.
While his end product has not always delivered, his brief first team cameos have shown a lot of energy and crucially, a willingness to take the ball on in tight spots and under pressure. There is little to be lost taking a closer look at some stage in the next four games.
After that it becomes a touch more complicated.
There are a battery of emerging players who may or may not be able to play a part next season.
Joel Asoro, the lighting fast but still raw striker. Josh Maja, an excellent prospect who has shone at times this season. Elliot Embleton, one of the brightest midfield prospects at the club. Fans will be eager to get a closer look but might it be counter-productive to introduce them to such a difficult environment, particularly if the crowd turns again? Might a full pre-season being involved with the first team, increasing their physical development, be more effective in making them ready to hit the ground running next year?
What to do with prize assets?
Of course, whether youngsters are blooded depends much on what Moyes does with those players almost certain to be moving on in the summer.
The likes of Kone, Borini, Khazri, Defoe.
Also the three loan players, none of whom realistically will return next year. Is there anything to be gained by playing them ahead of someone who could stake a claim for next year?
Moyes, through injuries and a need to try and secure a morale boosting result or two, may turn to many of them to see the season out.
There may also be a desire to keep them involved and prevent any depreciation in their value as a crucial summer looms on the horizon.