Phil Smith: The ghosts of Howard Wilkinson era surround this latest meek surrender

Lamine Kone celebrates at Crystal Palace in happier times
Lamine Kone celebrates at Crystal Palace in happier times
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There was a photo circulating in the afterglow of Sunderland’s quite remarkable 4-0 win over Crystal Palace.

A win that now seems almost dream like given what has happened since.

Howard Wilkinson

Howard Wilkinson

Beer is flying everywhere. The faces bear expressions of elation, shock, and above all else, release. For a brief, jubilant hour in the late winter sun, a reprieve from the hurt and frustration.

There has been much talk about Sunderland’s identity, or lack thereof. An understandable and fair debate given that the football has stopped functioning so dramatically, they have failed to score in nine of their last ten games.

Sunderland’s identity of course is there for all to see in that outstanding photograph at Selhurst Park. Pride and belief, even in adversity.

Perhaps the exhilarating high of that afternoon has served only to deepen the despair at the malaise that followed.

There were signs of fight at the King Power Stadium to begin with but in truth Sunderland’s season has flatlined.

Crystal Palace raised hope that Sunderland’s almost mythical powers of escapology were stirring once more. Now they have been exposed for what they are. Sunderland have been fortunate, kept afloat by the ineadequacies of others. They will not be so lucky this time.

Crystal Palace raised hopes of a new start, of the demons of Big Sam’s departure being laid to rest, but now this season is quickly going down in ignominy. The ghosts of Howard Wilkinson’s era are returning.

That Selhurst Park win brings back memories of an unlikely 2-0 win one month into Wilkinson’s reign, Tore Andre Flo and Kevin Phillips on the scoresheet as Spurs were swept aside.

The start of a new little and large partnership? Flo would only score one more goal for the Black Cats.

It is difficult to argue persuasively that this campaign is worse than that, the decline then so rapid. This has been tepid fare but there has been a longer period to come to terms with the failures at the root of the decline.

There a similarities in the meek end, however, Sunderland ending that campaign with one draw and 18 defeats in their last 19 games.

David Moyes’ side have not plumbed those depths but there is an inescapable sense of forgetting how to win, of confidence drained and leadership lacking.

Of agonising drift.

There still remains a clear appreciation that this likely relegation is the culmination of years of missed opportunities and bad mistakes.

Suddenly, however, short-term frustration has reached a crescendo, anger and apathy forming a toxic mix. Mistakes of the past are running alongside more immediate flaws.

How much longer can Sunderland rely on that intensity off the pitch when it is lacking on it? The conequences of a slow wander to relegation could be significant.

There have already been two painful demises in recent times, saved last time only by the quite remarkable takeover by Drumaville and the incendiary management of Roy Keane. That era was not perfect but it was dynamic, full of hope for the future and pride in the present.

Such optimism is in short supply now.

There are eight games and a summer to change the record, to point at a sense of direction, to overhaul and rebuild.

To look for stability is not begrudged by any, but the way this season is fading will lead to little patience and understanding come the start of the next campaign.

The worse this most galling of seasons becomes, the quicker and greener the shoots of recovery will have to be. Trust that the current regime can lead a rebirth is slowly but surely waning.

There will always be Crystal Palace, a reminder of what can be, how powerful the connection between the terrace and turf can be.

It increasingly looks like it will be Sunderland’s last Premier League hurrah, an afternoon to aspire to as the club enters what could be a phase of painful overhaul.

There was a patience and appetite for that at one stage this season that has begun to disappear as the gap above drops.

It is that feeling of futility that has brought to mind that brutual 2002/03 season, a season that forced another change before the rebuild began.

If there is not to be one this time around then the recovery must be swift.

The signs of what will follow if not are increasingly ominous.