Josh Maja and Sunderland's options explored and explained as contract impasse continues
Sunderland's worst fears were confirmed on Friday when they were given indication that Josh Maja would not sign the contract extension on the table.
It has been a fraught process, with Stewart Donald telling supporters that the 20-year-old had initially informed Jack Ross he would sign before being advised otherwise by his representatives.
The two parties now appear to be at an impasse as the season reaches a critical moment.
So what has happened and what realistically happens next?
THE STORY SO FAR
Talks with Maja initially started near the beginning of last year, with the youngster scoring a fine goal against Fulham.
Understandably at that stage, major uncertainty over the future of the club, its ownership, management and finances, meant that things did not progress quickly.
After a whirlwind summer in which the new regime had to assemble a squad from scratch, talks reopened after the early weeks of the season.
Already, Maja was hinting at a special talent that could indeed transfer to first team level.
In the months that followed, a strange contradiction played out.
Inside the club the mood was fairly relaxed. Maja was performing, responding well to the new management team and the new playing staff.
He remains a very popular player and one who Ross is hugely fond of.
Negotiations with his representatives, however, were frustrating.
The Black Cats believed they had met the demands set but progression was painfully slow.
As Maja's stock continued to rise, fears began to grow behind the scenes and the mood changed publicly in early December when Jack Ross called for clarity.
Nothing changed in the immediate period following that and eventually the club imposed a deadline.
They felt that some element of clarity was needed so that if necessary, they could begin the difficult challenge of finding a replacement before the month is out.
That process starts now.
It is not an easy task. There are plenty of good strikers willing to come and play in League One but Maja's outstanding composure and technique in the box is a rare skill.
SO CAN MAJA REALISTICALLY PLAY IN THE MEANTIME?
Ross now faces a difficult decision.
The contract deadline has offered some clarity but it also leaves the manager in a difficult position on the eve of two crucial League One clashes.
He will have to assess whether Maja is in the right frame of mind to play and whether his presence could have an adverse affect on the mood amongst supporters and the team.
Earlier this season, he admitted that tension over Lee Cattermole influenced his decision not to play him.
On Thursday, he suggested that he would keep playing Maja.
He has been fiercely protective of his player throughout this difficult time, pragmatic in a sense but also because of a genuine affection for his grounded personality and his insatiable
appetite for advice and coaching that can take his game to the next level.
On Tuesday, a superb performance against Blackpool brought a major ovation from the travelling support.
"It does help,” Ross said.
“It’s obvious to state but it does. It prevents there being any dissent or criticism towards him.
“I’ve had the conversation with him, that’s something that could happen if he doesn’t commit.
“It goes with the territory and there’s no point pretending that it isn’t the case.
“I never had any doubt that he would be different because of how he is and my relationship with him but he’s still got to go and do it.
“His performance at Blackpool was one of someone who is interested and wants to do well for Sunderland."
The big question is whether the acrimonious nature of what has happened since has changed the picture.
SO DO SUNDERLAND NOW LOOK TO SELL?
Logic would suggest that Sunderland will now sell if a suitable offer comes in.
There remains hope that Maja will commit and Stewart Donald has urged fans to get behind him in the meantime.
Pragmatically, however, the worst scenario is that Maja leaves in the summer and the club get very little in return.
Senior sources firmly rejected reports last month that they were looking to sell around the £1.5million mark.
The belief is that promotion to the Championship, something to which Maja's goals could be vital, could be worth more than that to the club in the long run.
Again, whether that remains the case depends on whether the club believe Maja can still perform between now and the end of the season.
His attitude and performance on Tuesday suggested he could.
WHAT ARE MAJA'S OPTIONS?
Maja's departure would be a massive blow to Sunderland.
Not just because of his quality, but because he has genuinely earned the affection and respect of everyone from players to management.
There is no ego and that has not changed despite his rapid rise this season.
That has only made the current situation all the more surprising.
The worst case scenario for Sunderland is that Maja agrees a pre-contract deal with a foreign club this month.
Financially that would hit the Black Cats hard as FIFA compensation rules would not be in their favour.
His representatives may well feel he can get regular game time at a high level by going down that route.
Alternatively, he could stay at Sunderland and run down his deal, hoping to stay in the team by continuing to knuckle down and contribute.
Then, in the summer, he will be able to make a judgement on his next step.
Another option would be to seek a January sale.
Clubs may be keen to land him on a free but signing him this month could get them ahead of other interested clubs.
That would be an interesting route to go down.
The likes of Huddersfield and Cardiff City have been linked.
Firstly, could Maja make an impact in a relegation battle right now and if not, is it really then in his interests to make that move?
If it is to a Championship club, then is there real reason to think Sunderland will not be equally well placed next season?
The final option, of course, is to stay put.
Everyone on Wearside remains hopeful that will be the ultimate upshot of this process.
By Stewart Donald's own admission, that this has been played out in public is far from ideal.
Jack Ross raised an interesting comparison on Thursday when he referred to a similar situation with Lewis Morgan at St Mirren last January.
Celtic eventually bought Morgan and loaned him back, the player continuing to thrive.
It is harder to see that happening with Maja should he stay to the summer.
The situation, though, is far from irretrievable.
Maja rightly retains a lot of goodwill for his attitude and performances and there is no reason why that cannot continue to be the case, even if these developments will have accelerated the planning for his possible departure.
Sunderland will hope that their worst fears are not realised in the coming weeks.
Either way, this story has a long way to run yet and the biggest decisions are still to be taken.