IT WILL be another week or two before some clarity emerges from the muddy picture at the Stadium of Light.
At the start of a summer where Sunderland can ill-afford to make the mistakes of 12 months ago, there are still too many ifs, buts and maybes.
Primarily, there is the situation of manager – or head coach – to cement.
The precariousness of Gus Poyet’s future at the Stadium of Light has been overplayed in some quarters.
It would be a major surprise if the pragmatic Ellis Short went against such strong public opinion by failing to find an amicable solution with the Uruguayan.
Poyet wants assurances that his proposals for change will be implemented.
His contract situation, with only a year left to run on his current deal, needs addressing.
And he is also understood to want an acceptable indication of the transfer funds available. Clearly, a reasonably-sized war chest is needed for a significant overhaul.
But presuming Poyet’s future is rubber-stamped at next week’s discussions with Short and chief executive Margaret Byrne, there remains the uncertainty over those out-of-contract at the Stadium of Light.
Until there is a definite yay or nay on whether Jack Colback, Seb Larsson, Phil Bardsley and Oscar Ustari are offered new deals, or if Sunderland will convert loan deals for Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini into permanent moves, the Black Cats are in limbo.
Sunderland could be looking at a modest five new signings if they all stay.
They may require double figures if they all depart.
Poyet’s vision is to have a squad of 22-23 players at his disposal, plus several promising youngsters in the club’s Under-21 ranks who can occupy a spot on the bench when injuries bite – as midfielder Liam Agnew did during the run-in.
But when Poyet is pencilling a list of contracted first-teamers for next season, it currently amounts to a paltry 12.
That includes rookie keeper Jordan Pickford, who will return from his loan spell at Carlisle United to resume his role as Sunderland’s third-choice stopper.
The scarce roster reads: Vito Mannone, Pickford, John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Valentin Roberge, Lee Cattermole, Liam Bridcutt, Emanuele Giaccherini, Adam Johnson, Jozy Altidore, Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher and Nacho Scocco.
Even then, there is the potential for the likes of Roberge, Giaccherini, Altidore and perhaps Fletcher to depart during the close season.
Alfred N’Diaye, Modibo Diakite, David Moberg Karlsson, Cabral and Danny Graham are not included on that list after spending the end of the season on loan.
Sunderland will look to offload all of them this summer, even if it is back on loan.
It’s crucial they do that, due to the burden on the wage bill.
Neither can Charis Mavrias, El-Hadji Ba and Duncan Watmore be realistically included in the that squad of 22-23, with none of the trio yet showing they are ready for the Premier League.
They will remain in the category of developing in the U21s, flirting with the first team and potentially heading out on loan.
The rebuilding should begin with Ustari and Vergini both remaining on Wearside.
Back-up keeper Ustari has impressed Poyet with his attitude and performances on the training field, while Vergini has shown his potential as a makeshift right-back and. with a clause in his loan to make his move permanent for around £500,000, that looks a no-brainer.
Sunderland will surely look to keep Alonso too and will hope there is scope for a swap deal involving Diakite, who has been at the Spanish left-back’s parent club, Fiorentina, for the last five months.
But, with significant question marks over whether Colback, Larsson and Bardsley will agree new contracts, there will be an air of decimation over Poyet’s squad.
Those three need to be replaced if they don’t sign, as does Craig Gardner, as does Carlos Cuellar, as does Andrea Dossena, as do loanees Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini.
Serious rebuilding needs to be done.
It can’t be of that sticky-back plaster variety of last summer either. That led to both a relegation scrap and the same requirement for wholesale reinforcements again 12 months later.
There is a far more stress placed on balancing the books these days at the Stadium of Light than there was when Short splashed the cash freely after first arriving on Wearside.
It’s understandable given Financial Fair Play. Perhaps a few quid can be raised from the sale of a Giaccherini, Altidore or Fletcher.
But once the dust settles and the picture on next season becomes clearer over the next fortnight, Poyet needs some backing with his transfer kitty.
Otherwise, Sunderland’s tendency to continue playing with fire will eventually leave them burned.
FABIO BORINI, Vito Mannone and Ki Sung-Yueng provided the odd success stories in Sunderland’s spending spree last summer.
Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini played their part after arriving in January too.
But surely Sunderland’s best piece of transfer business this season was rejecting the overtures of Stoke City for Lee Cattermole in the January window.
Stoke’s offer of £5million was a big temptation for the Black Cats, particularly as it would have removed one of the biggest wages on the club’s books.
Yet Gus Poyet’s suspicion that Cattermole would prove to be a key player in the survival fight produced a far bigger windfall than £5m after the Teessider was a crucial catalyst in the Great Escape.
It would be a shock if the Potters didn’t rejuvenate their interest in Cattermole this summer.
But Cattermole has proved his worth over the last half-dozen games. He is one to build next season’s team around.