Frustrating wait raises questions and leaves Sunderland with a mountain to climb against Millwall

Robbie Stockdale looks certain to lead the Sunderland side against Millwall.
Robbie Stockdale looks certain to lead the Sunderland side against Millwall.
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Two days before Sunderland were beaten by Middlesbrough, Ellis Short spoke of his aspirations to put the club back where it belongs, fighting for a place in the top half of the Premier League.

It was an eye-catching statement from the owner and, in fairness, at odds with the tone of much of the interview, speaking honestly of the ‘crisis’ engulfing the club on the pitch.

To go to the Riverside and get a result against a resurgent and expensively assembled squad was always going to be difficult, with morale low and without Duncan Watmore, one of Sunderland’s few genuine counter-attacking threats.

The hope, however, was that Short (and by extension, chief executive Martin Bain) would act decisively in the international break that followed to secure a manager who could energise the club and send the side into tomorrow’s crucial game against Millwall with a spring in their step.

Financial realities meant finding a truly unifying, inspiring candidate was always going to be a tall order.

Nevertheless, to find ourselves without any resolution two and a half weeks on from the departure of Simon Grayson raises serious question marks about just how serious that statement from the owner was.

Sunderland have never got as far as offering the job to a candidate, but it is quite clear that many have not shown a great deal of interest.

Derek McInnes turned down the role in the summer, concerned about the size of his transfer budget, the uncertainty off the field and with the sense that he would find it difficult to stabilise the club under the current regime.

One managerial departure later and that feeling is still shared by many.

Managers who would ordinarily leap at the chance to manage a club with one of the biggest fanbases and some of the best facilities in the country are unconvinced.

The prospect of investment in January and beyond is slim.

Short and Bain still have time to pull a rabbit out of the hat but valid questions over the direction of the club under their guidance will intensify if not.

It has been another wearying, morale-sapping wait for white smoke to emerge.

There was a wait to speak to Michael O’Neill and other candidates whose fate was not yet settled, and perhaps Sunderland felt the offer of club management would be enough to catch their attention.

Scotland’s interest in O’Neill has been an open secret in football, however, and they remained confident throughout that they were in pole position.

Much of Sunderland’s approach has been confusing and has certainly not given the impression that a clear image of what they have been looking for in a new boss has been present throughout.

If Bain cannot deliver a morale-boosting appointment after this delay, there will be intense scrutiny.

Focus has shifted to Chris Coleman and while that would be a fine appointment, it is hard not to wonder whether his crunch talk with Wales are behind much of the speculation. The stakes get higher with every passing day.

If the mood on Wearside before the last home against Bolton was flat, then it has only gone one way since.

Why would it be anything different? Frankly, the Sunderland support have been given no reason for optimism as of yet.

The sense of drift and the lack of leadership underlines the nagging despair that Sunderland are the next big club to drop straight through the Championship.

That is the backdrop to a game where Sunderland can set a new record for games at home without a win.

The uncertainty has left caretaker Robbie Stockdale with a mountain to climb.

He has not even had the presence of Billy McKinlay to lean on, the man drafted in to help quickly jumping ship to join David Moyes at West Ham.

At Middlesbrough 12 days ago, he looked to mix things up in the hope of a reaction.

Lee Cattermole returned and, alongside Darron Gibson, gave an experienced look to the spine of the team.

Dider Ndong moved out wide to offer greater energy, but the results were underwhelming.

By the end, Sunderland looked back to where they started, lethargic and without creativity on the ball.

It will not be easy to shift the needle against a Millwall side who will be happy to sit off and absorb pressure, preying on the fragility of the Black Cats at home.

Sunderland’s season should be far from a lost cause.

There remains individual quality in the squad – the pace of Watmore, the finishing of Grabban, the delivery of McGeady,

Optimism is rightly thin. As it stands, Stockdale and his squad are being sent into a week of three crucial games without clarity on what will come next.

Ellis Short has provided nothing to suggest he can make good on his promise to solve Sunderland’s crisis.