Charlie Methven reflects on one year at Sunderland, the season so far and why Jack Ross has done 'a hell of a job'
It was a year ago this weekend that everything changed.
Sunderland, already relegated, were beaten 2-1 by Fulham.
That in itself was relatively uneventful, some impressive performances from youngsters but in the end another defeat.
Just over a day later, Chris Coleman departed and a takeover was announced.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven embarked on a long, draining rebuild of a club on its knees.
Of course, the final chapter of this intense, often exhilarating, always exhausting first year is still to be written.
Sunderland enter the final week of the regular season knowing that three wins will give them a good chance of automatic promotion.
If not, the tension of the play-offs await.
What comes next will undoubtedly shape the perceptions of this campaign but there is a far bigger picture to consider, too.
"It's been intense, passionate, emotional," Methven said.
"It's been very, very hard work. I don't think either I or Stewart have ever worked as hard as this in our entire lives.
"There's so much that had to be done and it is easy to forget where the club was 12 months ago. There was £170 million of debt, with interest payments on that debt bigger than most League One squads' wage bill. The interest payments on the debt were bigger than our entire ticketing revenue.
"On top of that, there had been a breakdown in trust between the fanbase and the people running the club," he added.
"It was a deeply broken, deeply hurt organisation 12 months ago before we took over.
"All I would ask is that people look back over the last 12 months and ask, on the basis of where are now compared to then, are we in a substantially better position? And make that judgement every year. Are these guys moving us forward?
"Ultimately success on the pitch is lovely, it's the challenge and what we aim for. It's what excites us but ultimately, if the club is not strong and is not financially stable, the success on the pitch will disappear.
"If it's built on sand then it will disappear. As it did for Portsmouth, as it did for Sunderland.
"So I'd ask that people look at the totality of the situation, from the state of the Stadium, to the finances, to the links with the community."
Promotion would be a fine way to underline that progress but Methven stressed that to be competitive throughout the campaign is something that was never guaranteed.
"I remember looking out of my office window in late June/July when the players came back, we barely had enough players for five-a-side. How many clubs in that situation go on to compete in the next season? It hardly ever happens," he said.
“I think the players and management have done a hell of a job given that they were thrown together at very short notice to actually compete against teams who have been together for two, three years, whose managers have been able to drop out the bits that don’t work, put in the bits that do, gradually build a dressing-room culture, all the things that people who really know about football know are important. At Luton, Portsmouth and Barnsley, they’ve been doing that for some time. Sunderland were starting at ground zero.
"I think it’s a great achievement that we’re fighting with those clubs.
"I know people will say we’re a very big club in this division, yes, but the financial advantage of being a big club was already spent and more so it doesn’t help us at all that we get 30,000 [average league home crowds] and they get 18,000, that additional 12,000 has already been promised away and more because we’ve got four players who are paid more than any other League One squad.
"Our actual first-team squad spend [minus those four] is very similar to the other top teams," he added.
"That’s the reality. Everyone recognises it, it’s not the players concerned’s fault, it’s not Jack’s fault, it’s not Stewart and my fault, but it would be wrong for people not to recognise that there are substantial challenges we’re still fighting through that mean we’re not yet able to compete on what I would call a level footing.
"If and when we get to that stage, it will be a wonderful moment.
"We’re debt-free as of this week, no charges on the club.
"Given all the challenges, I'm reasonably proud of where we've got to. I wouldn't put it more strongly than that, if we get promoted then I would. If we don't, then it will be gutting for a few weeks but then we'll look back and think well that's not entirely surprising.
"Then you have to strengthen and become the team that other clubs who've been through a traumatic period look at and say, they've sorted themselves out and are really strong."
The reality and scale of Sunderland's rebuild has not always permeated into the wider consciousness.
That budget has been regularly used as a stick to beat the Black Cats with by other clubs.
Jack Ross has often that Sunderland's presence has probably a very useful distraction and deflection for those competing in League One.
There has been some frustration with results on Wearside, too, without question.
Methven says some of the criticism, predominantly on social media, is 'bang out of order'.
His assessment of what Ross has done this season is emphatic.
"If you look at the totality of what Jack [Ross] took on and where he has got us to now, a Wembley final where we lost on a penalty shootout, and right in the thick of the promotion battle," Methven said.
"If he or any candidate for the managerial job last summer had been able to promise to get us to a Checkatrade final which we made a lot of money out of, to help us with our finances by not banging on our door asking for more players and money all the time, and to be right in the promotion shake up with a week to go in the season, that person would have been hired on the spot.
"It is a small minority [who criticise]. If you were at the Doncaster game, there wasn't a shred of doubt in the level of support. The 37,000 fans who turn up on Saturday have been absolute gold dust for us this season. They've been hugely supportive of Jack, the players and it has been a real team effort.
"During the Doncaster game, it felt like the place was really coming together. The Roker End looked and sounded great, there was a real buzz and a positive vibe. I thought, as a club, crikey, we're getting there. We are getting there."