Sunderland legend Michael Gray believes the best place for the club to progress may be the Championship
The Black Cats are bottom of the Premier League and six points from safety after a torrid season so far.
Relegation is staring the club in the face, but Gray believes leaving the top flight could be beneficial to the club in the long-term, if they can bring more youngsters through the ranks.
“This is where we are now,” Gray said. “The club is in debt and we’ve got a chairman who wants to sell the club, so he’s not really throwing money at it.
“The days of Kevin Keegan at Newcastle are gone, the days of top players coming to Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, they’ve all gone.
“There’s a realisation in the North East, we’ve got to try and find that passion and I think that might come with nurturing the youngsters coming through.
"And I think the best place for Sunderland to do that might actually be in the Championship.”
Despite the perilous position, Sunderland boss David Moyes is still hopeful of getting out of danger.
Sunderland have produced a number of escape acts in recent seasons under Paolo Di Canio, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce.
But while some watchers believe the battle-hardened players can draw on previous experiences and beat the drop again, Gray - who played more than 350 games for the club - feels this may be one relegation fight too far for the squad.
“Supporters are hanging onto the knowledge that we’ve been here before and have got ourselves out of it over the last four seasons," he added on Talksport.
“But those same players are four years older now, and I just don’t think they can give the energy they gave four years ago to get out of it.
“There is one individual in the team who is their saving grace –obviously that is Jermain Defoe.
“If Jermain can come up with the goals, we’re relying on him against to save us and keep us in the Premier League.
“So there’s always a percentage of hope, but if you’re asking me right now if this is the season that Sunderland will go down, I’d have to say yes.”