THERE is no single scapegoat for Sunderland’s likely descent towards the Championship.
Supporters are understandably looking for one after three years of decline have put Sunderland on the verge of paying the ultimate price, yet this club’s problems have stemmed from collective mismanagement, rather than any one individual being to blame.
All the decision-makers at the Stadium of Light over the last three years have to take a chunk of responsibility for this mess.
In no particular order, Paolo Di Canio, Roberto De Fanti, Ellis Short, Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Margaret Byrne, Niall Quinn, Gus Poyet and of course, the players themselves, are all liable to varying degrees.
Scrutiny can even descend as far as the academy, given the lack of suitable first-team contenders post Jordan Henderson and Jack Colback.
The inquest into how a team who were on the crest of establishing themselves in the top 10 under Steve Bruce, have imploded, will rightfully be long and painful if Sunderland do indeed drop out of the Premier League.
But there can be no self-pity or recriminations inside the corridors of power at Black Cat House.
Practical solutions need to be identified to ensure that if Sunderland are in the Championship, their stay is not extended beyond a one-season wonder.
Sunderland have to be ready for the upheaval of relegation, particularly as the squad for an instant promotion push would virtually need to be established from scratch.
Even if Poyet can perform a miracle over the final eight games and record the four victories needed to beat the drop, there will be a major overhaul of the playing roster.
After three years at the wrong end of the Premier League table, few fans will shed any tears over that.
Only Phil Bardsley and Jack Colback among Sunderland’s eight out-of-contract players have engaged in any talks over a new deal.
Colback has rejected the club’s advances so far, while Bardsley is banking on an offer of a longer deal.
If Sunderland stay up, Oscar Ustari could well earn a fresh contract, but the remaining five – Seb Larsson, Craig Gardner, Carlos Cuellar, Keiren Westwood and Andrea Dossena – are all likely to be jettisoned.
Of the loan players, Poyet would face a battle to sign Fabio Borini and Ki Sung-Yueng permanently, Ondrej Celustka will return to Turkey, Santiago Vergini has looked decidely dicey and Marcos Alonso’s form has dipped since a bright start to his Sunderland career.
Then are those out-on-loan – Cabral, Modibo Diakite, Alfred N’Diaye and Danny Graham – who Sunderland would hope to offload permanently.
Throw in those players who the Sunderland boss would look to sell anyway, and it spells yet another summer where the incomings and outgoings are both in double figures.
But if as expected, Sunderland are relegated, Poyet will be lucky to have 10 players LEFT.
The loans will return to their parent clubs and none of the out-of-contract players are likely to stay. Yes, Sunderland could offer them reduced terms to remain for a promotion push, but a clean break may be more preferable for all parties after the scars of relegation.
Some of the big-money buys would depart too – Steven Fletcher, Emanuele Giaccherini, Jozy Altidore and Adam Johnson all potentially available, albeit the latter would be the only one where Sunderland would stand a chance of recouping their investment.
Stoke would surely reignite their interest in Lee Cattermole, while it’s not inconceivable that Vito Mannone could depart after only signing a two-year deal when he arrived on Wearside last summer.
Who would be left? Not many. Nacho Scocco, John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Liam Bridcutt, Connor Wickham, Charis Mavrias, El-Hadji Ba, Jordan Pickford and Duncan Watmore, plus probably Graham, Mannone and Valentin Roberge.
While having so many players who can be immediately removed from the wage bill would be a financial blessing, it also leaves Poyet with a significant void to fill in actually putting a team out.
Sunderland instantly become a big draw in the Championship, but there would be only limited funds available for transfer fees – certainly not the almost blank cheque book available to Roy Keane after the arrival of the Drumaville consortium.
The Black Cats would need to box clever in targeting Bosmans, bargain-basement signings and loans – albeit the Elastoplast short-termism of the latter has been one of the reasons behind Sunderland’s failure to develop.
Poyet will still hope it doesn’t come to that. With eight games to go, Sunderland cannot give up the ghost of remaining in the top flight. Stranger things have certainly happened.
But Sunderland now have to start making contingency plans. They can ill-afford to be ill-prepared for the unforgiving existence of the Championship promotion race.