Things can only get better for Sunderland - unless they get considerably worse

The Black Cats were beaten 5-1 by Blackburn Rovers on Easter Monday
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Things can only get better. Unless, of course, they get a whole lot worse. To support Sunderland in this, the year 2024, is to tap dance on the crumbling planks of a woodworm-infested trap door, never quite knowing if or when the thing is going to give way beneath your heels. You are always but 90 minutes away from a jump scare, from that dreadful lurching sensation in the pit of your stomach and the dull, Sisyphean ache of the aftermath.

On Easter Monday, Blackburn Rovers - a side who had won just one of their previous 18 outings and who continue to flirt with the sour prospect of relegation to League One - limped up to the Stadium of Light. Naturally, they won 5-1. This wasn't necessarily a new low for the folk of Wearside, but the swathes of vacated seats come the final whistle told a horror story all of their own. Sunderland were little more than lambs to the slaughter; John Eustace and his grateful squad were probably still wiping mint sauce from their chins halfway down the M6.

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At home, narrated through the bloodbath by Sky Sports' very own Neil Lennon - a man who simultaneously captures the charm of Anne Robinson during her Weakest Link heyday and a routine colonoscopy - I simply had to look away. Rarely have I been so rattled by a vidiprinter, sat in my living room, fuming at the television as number after inconvenient number popped up, like a rabid Countdown Ultra.

I get the impression that I was not the only one. As the dust settled and the ringing subsided, Mackem timelines everywhere were awash with discourse; thick, lumpy discourse. Everywhere I look I see the word 'model'. It's like watching Kraftwerk perform at an Airfix convention. You see, there are those who seemingly want Kristjaan Speakman's head on a pike outside the Glass Centre before too long. I'm sorry to disappoint, but that won't happen, figuratively or otherwise. The quarter-zip Machiavelli has accrued too many brownie points, inflated the collective valuation of Sunderland's dressing room too vastly, to be ousted so unceremoniously after half a dodgy season. And anyways, the model wouldn't like that, and the model is god. All hail the model.

Facetiousness aside, Speakman will not go, but the simmering vexations of a disillusioned fanbase are entirely valid, and the Black Cats are now facing a transitional summer in which they can ill afford any more missteps. First on their agenda will, you would hope, be the recruitment of a new manager. Mike Dodds, a decent bloke who showed flashes of his coaching capabilities in the aftermath of Tony Mowbray's departure, has returned to his interim role with the distinct vibe of a supply teacher parachuted in to cover an unruly PE class at the eleventh hour.

Then, of course, there are the anticipated exits among Sunderland's playing staff. If Jack Clarke does not leave it will be a minor miracle, but the wiry winger could quite easily be joined by the likes of Dan Ballard, Dan Neil, Trai Hume, Anthony Patterson, and/or a smattering of others, if various gossipy reports are to be trusted.

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In and of itself, such sales should not immediately be considered catastrophic; the foundational principle of Sunderland's current recruitment blueprint is to buy cheap, develop, and sell for considerable profit. But so much hinges on the acquisition of effective replacements, and in that sense, Speakman and those around him have fallen relatively flat over the past couple of transfer windows; the smooth-talking director will continue to be beaten with a big stick labelled 'Striker Situation' until an actual goalscorer is eventually dragged kicking and screaming through the doors of the Academy of Light.

Sadly, this is where Sunderland now find themselves; traipsing towards a nothingness, waiting for a chance to put things right, fearful that their bumbling may inadvertently make them more unbearable still, like a bomb disposal sniffer dog with a head cold.

And the reason why all of this is so frightening is because since the turn of the year, the Black Cats have delivered a petrifying glimpse into an alternate, albeit very tangible, future in which their precocious young dressing room simply do not possess the grit, guile, or grace to cut it in the Championship. Following their 2-0 home victory over Preston North End on New Year's Day, they have taken just 11 points from 14 outings. That is, however you care to dissect it, relegation form. Hell, it might even be 'rooted to the bottom of the table like a hessian sack full of bricks' form.

In other words, Sunderland have reached an impasse. They either sort themselves out or suffer the consequences. If they get it wrong, it is no exaggeration to suggest, on current evidence, that the abyss of League One beckons once more. No pressure, Kristjaan, marra.