IT’S NOT just on the balance sheet that Sunderland are in the red.
A debt of gratitude is owed by the club to supporters who have largely witnessed dross this season, yet still managed to pack the Stadium of Light with its highest average attendance since the Peter Reid era.
This is Sunderland’s win-or-bust cup final.
Now, by definition, the role of the supporter is to provide unconditional support, rather than confine their allegiance to fair weather or expect anything in return.
Sunderland are not a Chelsea or Manchester United with a Hooray Henry fanbase.
Anyone who has ever pulled on a replica red and white shirt knows what they’ve let themselves in for.
But even by Sunderland standards, this season has been a draining one to watch.
Only four home wins – two of which have come in the last three outings on Wearside – a couple of dismal capitulations and largely dire football have not made Stadium of Light experiences particularly enjoyable.
Despite that backdrop, Sunderland need to again ask for a big helping hand from supporters for the final home game this weekend.
What promises to be a close-to-capacity crowd needs to provide the encouraging, hostile and boisterous atmosphere witnessed in last month’s Wear-Tyne derby, because this game is far, far bigger.
This is Sunderland’s win-or-bust cup final.
Win and the Black Cats will surely be playing Premier League football next season.
Lose and it’s a case of sweating over Steve Bruce.
But if (and no-one is counting chickens, turkeys or any other species of poultry) Dick Advocaat’s side can complete the job on Saturday, then the club need to spend the summer taking a serious look at how it can improve its relationship with the fanbase.
In fact, Sunderland need to do it even if they are in the Championship.
Winning a few more football matches would inevitably improve enthusiasm – that’s the nature of the beast.
But prior to this timely run of seven points from the last three games, there was a growing disillusion and disenchantment among Sunderland’s fanbase, which was becoming worrying.
Just look at how thousands flocked to the exits early during that horrifying collapse against Crystal Palace.
They weren’t angry, they didn’t want to stay to boo, they were just pig-sick of seeing the same old story.
The constant cycle of relegation struggle, repeated mistakes in the transfer market and little sign of progress have grown tiresome.
That is where Sunderland need someone in their hierarchy to step forward and explain the club’s current strategy to finally fulfil that ambition of establishing itself as a top-10 outfit.
Since the departure of Niall Quinn three years ago, it’s been a void that has been lifted vacant.
There’s been the odd club website interview from Roberto De Fanti and Lee Congerton or programme notes from Ellis Short, but they rarely address the burning issues.
A couple of times a season, someone in the upper echelons at Sunderland needs to put some flesh on the bones, either through the media or in those roadshows which proved so successful under Quinn.
What are the club’s ambitions?
How will they get there?
What can be done to bring more players through the academy system?
How is the financial position going to improve?
What is the balance of power between the director of football and the head coach?
When there is simply silence, as is the case at present, fans inevitably draw conclusions that are either incorrect or antagonistic.
It’s been a similar situation up the road, where Alan Pardew or John Carver have faced the flak, and there’s been tumble-weed from Mike Ashley and his entourage.
The last thing Sunderland need is to create that kind of splintered relationship between the board and the terraces.
In fact, if Sunderland stop up, Congerton and Short deserve a hefty dose of credit.
Short for again having the conviction to make a managerial change at such a late stage in the season, and Congerton for the choice of Advocaat as a short-term solution, when there were plenty questioning whether this was another Felix Magath-esque appointment.
They may well acted impeccably to save Sunderland’s Premier League status.
But if that proves to be the case, Sunderland must see it as an opportunity.
With Newcastle in lockdown mode with their fanbase, Sunderland have the chance to genuinely engage with supporters and creative a positive mood.
Even in this era of a global Premier League product, Sunderland can still prove that local ties remain.