LAST night, the Chester-le-Street branch of the Sunderland Supporters’ Association held its annual sporting dinner.
It’s always a heart-warming event, always an occasion enthusiastically enjoyed.
Organised by salt-of-the-earth fans like Derek Stubbs, the dinner is well-attended by the red and white army and supported by many of the great and the good who surround the club.
None greater than the likes of 87-year-old George Forster, who helped found the parent Association in the mid-1960s, none more knowledgeable about SAFC than club historian Rob Mason.
But those two are little more than typical of the top-quality Sunderland supporters drawn in by such grassroots evenings.
Rob was representing the club, as were Press officers Louise Wanless and Andrew Lisgo.
But it was others, who once embodied the club itself, who naturally drew greater attention: former club chairman Sir Bob Murray and his one-time Sunderland manager, Denis Smith.
Watching them, it was hard to escape a huge and overpowering sense of irony that the two men who once held the reins of power at Sunderland Football Club in difficult days should be reunited at the Stadium of Light in the circumstances the club currently finds itself in: fighting a relegation battle it seems certain to lose.
The buzz among the supporters was still about the thrilling game at Manchester City the previous night, the joke being that the star prize in the auction – a signed shirt of Vito Mannone – would have been worth a few more bob had the Italian not fumbled the ball over his goal-line at the Etihad 24 hours earlier!
It was the sort of gallows humour Sunderland fans used to specialise in – laughter masking the pain.
But the presence of Murray and Smith – the ghosts of Sunderland’s past – served as a sharp reminder that it was no longer supposed to be this way in the brave new world they once planned.
They were two men united and divided by a new stadium dream which Bob the Builder eventually saw realised on the banks of Wear, although not without much pain and anguish beforehand.
Smith was an excellent manager who saw Sunderland slide out of the top flight in 1991 because of a lack of funds.
Peter Reid, half-a-dozen years later, was another excellent manager who saw Sunderland slide out of the top flight – the first time SAFC had reached the Premier League – because of a lack of funds.
On both occasions at Roker Park,, the chairman was Murray and on both occasions the reason was the same – money being set aside for the creation of a new all-seater stadium which would transform Sunderland for generations to come.
The crucial goals of Martin Smith, the Son of Pele another guest at the dinner last night, helped save Sunderland from a relegation to the Third Division which would have killed off the stadium dream; helped set Reid and Murray on their way to a promotion which finally saw the construction of a magnificent 42,000 all-seater stadium, soon extended to 48,000.
Its foundation stone in the entranceway to the West Stand points out: “This stadium was created for the future benefit of the people of Sunderland and great region.”
And before it was installed, Sir Bob once explained to the Echo: “The stadium is the key to everything, it can make Sunderland great again.”
It’s something he believed then and it is something he believes now.
Looking back over the years last night, Denis Smith, once understandably bitter on missing out on the players and opportunities which almost certainly would have kept Sunderland in the top flight, was big enough to see the bigger picture.
“I couldn’t get the money to build the team I wanted because any money was tied up at the time in the stadium plan,” he reflected.
“Peter Reid suffered as well when he got Sunderland up the first time – he couldn’t get the money to improve his squad because the club was building the Stadium of Light.
“It was incredibly painful at the time and the fans suffered as much as anyone else, but looking around tonight, who is not to say that Bob was right all along?
“It’s an absolutely fantastic stadium – a stadium worthy of Sunderland’s fans – and both deserve to be in the Premier League.”
Maybe they do, but the likelihood is that next season they won’t be.
And the clearest, most glaring difference between the impending relegation Sunderland face now, and those of Smith and Reid can be summed up in one word: money.
Lots and lots and lots of money.
How Smith and Reid would have loved to have had the spending power of their successors since Sunderland returned to the top flight.
How much, they would feel, might they have accomplished with what was made available after Niall Quinn drew the wallets of first Drumaville and then Ellis Short to the glittering new stadium?
The simple fact is, though, that that money has been squandered, given the plight the club currently finds itself – heading back to Square One, as this column suggested last week.
And it is hard not to conclude that maybe Gus Poyet had a point last week when he claimed that something is fundamentally wrong with the club which needs to be addressed.
When you consider the clubs that can expect to stay up this season – Hull City, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Stoke – there has to be mismanagement on a huge scale to screw up the advantages a club like Sunderland enjoys over them: the size of its fanbase, the quality of its infrastructure.
Those clubs have succeeded because they have been run well at enough levels.
And good luck to them.
But now is the time for Ellis Short to grasp the opportunity this awful situation at Sunderland offers and look to rebuild a club as boldly as Sir Bob Murray built a ground.
It is no less than the Stubbs, Forsters, Masons and all Sunderland fans deserve.
And lest we forget, it is no less than so many of the good, honest, hardworking staff at Sunderland Football Club also deserve.
* Don’t miss tomorrow night’s online Football Echo – available for free on this website – for our verdict on Chelsea v Sunderland, plus the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and the local football scene.