Promotion to the Premiership has rarely looked so appealing. Wigan are the season's surprise packages and West Ham are comfortably ensconced in the top half of the table. The predicted relegation battles have failed to materialise. But there is a worst case scenario: Sunderland.
The 2002-3 vintage managed just 19 points, a tally that seemed destined for a lengthy stay in the record books. Until now.
There are few growth industries in Wearside football, except gallows humour (and perhaps psychiatry).
One interpretation of the FA Cup win against Northwich Victoria was that it was proof that Sunderland, unlike Middlesbrough and Manchester United, would be a force in the Conference North. Manager Mick McCarthy greeted it with the comment: 'Roll on Chelsea'.
Sunderland, despite a determined effort, duly lost, ending the unbeaten run at one. McCarthy praised his players, as he often has. But when conceding possession is the norm, his definition of a good performance tends to hinge on industry and commitment.
Managers with more stringent criteria might not concur, though there are more talented teams who could benefit from Sunderland's spirit. More revealing, earlier in the season, was the post-match interview when he said he could question their ability, if not their attitude.
And therein lies the difference with their predecessors at the Stadium of Light, who are still clinging on to their monopoly of the Premiership's least coveted records.
Since then, however, Kevin Kilbane, Gavin McCann, Thomas Sorensen, Claudio Reyna and Kevin Phillips have fared better in the top flight. So, before arriving at Sunderland, did Jason McAteer, Phil Babb, Stefan Schwarz and the products of a £10 million spending spree, Marcus Stewart and Tore Andre Flo.
The contrast with the current team is apparent. Handicapped by the consequences of Sunderland's spending three years ago, McCarthy appears to be road-testing the theory that a Championship select XI could prosper in the Premiership. There are exceptions - such as Wigan's Jimmy Bullard - but while they can be a fine breeding ground for young talent, stalwarts of the lower leagues to bridge a gargantuan gulf between the divisions are a rarity; indeed, many of his summer acquisitions appeared perfect for a promotion push in 2006-7.
|“||Moreover, while Ipswich, Millwall, Derby and Reading are regular stopping points for the Premiership scouts, McCarthy has recruited from Morton, Chester and Stockport. ”|
Moreover, while Ipswich, Millwall, Derby and Reading are regular stopping points for the Premiership scouts, McCarthy has recruited from Morton, Chester and Stockport, who have not enjoyed the same reputation.
It has brought some reward. Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence - from Oxford and Mansfield respectively - have stood out, albeit in a sea of mediocrity.
Stories suggesting Rafael Benitez is eyeing Whitehead seem far-fetched but he and Julio Arca are the two Sunderland players whose stay in the top flight could be extended by other clubs.
The only other cause for glee on Wearside is that Middlesbrough are Sunderland's sole victims. Besides the derby victory, only West Brom, West Ham and Bolton have ceded points to Sunderland.
It means that, while their rivals regard the January transfer window as a potential salvation, it is irrelevant to Sunderland. The Swiss international Ricardo Cabanas and Ian Harte - to replenish McCarthy's Irish contingent - have been linked, but any signings now could be an exercise in futility. So, too, would a change of management; Sunderland have established a position of such hopelessness that a hybrid of Messrs Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger and Benitez could not save them.
At the other end, Andy Gray and Jon Stead account for the majority of the £4 million outlay on transfers. The Scot scored on his debut, yet their combined record is of one goal in 40 games. Attacks do not get much blunter and, though on-loan Anthony Le Tallec has been marginally more prolific, their strike partnership is another unwanted contender for the most ineffectual in the Premiership. Again, to hark back to the Sunderland side of 2002-3, that featured Phillips, once the league's leading scorer.
And that season amounted to a failure of management. A failure to galvanise a superior group of players and to invest £10 million wisely. A failure of Peter Reid and then Howard Wilkinson, because McCarthy's pointless nine-game tenure at the end of the season came too late to count
This time around, he can be held to account. And while McCarthy is not beyond reproach - both his signings and his tactics can be questioned - the lesser resources at his disposal are a significant factor.
And it means that, while the final league table will provide the official confirmation, a glance at their squad list is sufficient evidence to crown this Sunderland team the worst side in Premiership history.
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