The Dutch describe Advent as de donkere dagen voor Kerstmis. It means the dark days before Christmas and, for Sunderland, they can never have felt shorter or bleaker.
The winter solstice may just have passed, leaving the earth starting to tilt towards the sun once again but, at the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light, there can be no guarantees that spring will bring a rebirth of warmth and brightness.
Sunderland are preparing for Bolton’s Boxing Day visit sitting almost as low in League One as the winter sun which, on Monday, struggled to break through the December gloom to shine weakly on what remains their top-end Premier League-class training facility, the Academy of Light.
Phil Parkinson’s side are 13th – the lowest position in their sometimes illustrious history – with the manager deemed under pressure barely two months after succeeding Jack Ross.
If it seemed dubious at the time, hindsight has made the decision to sack Ross, with the team sixth in the table and within touching distance of the automatic promotion places, look increasingly poor and panicky.
The problem was that the intelligent, talented Scot – who was swiftly snapped up by Hibernian – had narrowly missed out on taking Sunderland to the Championship last season and fears of another failure perhaps clouded the judgment of the owner, Stewart Donald.
Parkinson has a decent body of work behind him, doing very good jobs at assorted clubs including Bradford – remember that wonderful run to the League Cup final? – and Bolton, but he tends to start slowly and Sunderland are a club in a desperate hurry to return to the Premier League.
Right now football’s promised land looks an awfully long way away and, with Donald having recently taken a £9m loan from FFP – a company consisting of a small group of American investors with close links to Michael Dell, of Dell computers – the future is shrouded in uncertainty.
Should Donald fail to repay that loan, FFP would take charge of a club which, not so long ago, was put on the market for £170m by its former owner, the American billionaire Ellis Short.
While this could be a very good thing – if Dell were to get involved Sunderland would gain heavyweight financial muscle – nothing is guaranteed. After all, the training ground is in the upmarket Cleadon area of Sunderland and occupies precisely the sort of invitingly large site which property developers would relish turning into expensive luxury homes.
Meanwhile the team itself has turned distinctly downmarket. A recent picture of two players, the former Celtic winger Aiden McGeady – since transfer-listed and working with the under-23s following a “training ground incident” – and Chris Maguire tucking into a post-match meal at a McDonald’s on the way back from a 1-0 defeat at Gillingham appeared emblematic of plummeting standards.
So far Parkinson has presided over only two wins and has, damningly, said: “Is it the greatest dressing room I’ve been part of? Probably not.”
Following a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Blackpool this month, Parkinson swerved post-match media duties, claiming “he needed a break” but he was back facing the microphones and endeavouring to be as upbeat as possible on Monday.
“This is a critical period for us,” said Parkinson, reminding everyone that his side are only six points off a play-off place. “In the next block of four games we have to aim to get back into the top six or pretty close to it.”
Flags at the Stadium of Light have been fluttering at half-mast since Friday when Billy Hughes, a vital attacking spark in Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup-winning team, died at the age of 70 and a minute’s silence will precede kick-off against Bolton.
The crowd is likely to be significantly down on this time last year when a 46,039 gathering shattered the League One attendance record by filling the stadium for a 1-0 Boxing Day win against Bradford.
Back then Sunderland seemed set fair for automatic promotion with Josh Maja scoring freely but the January transfer window saw the young striker sold to Bordeaux and the team’s fortunes have never properly recovered.
Despite a tight budget, Parkinson hopes to redress the balance next month. “I know what I need to be successful,” he said on Monday. “I’m working hard to get this team into a position where we can challenge. We must get more out of the players but, of course, we’d also like to improve the squad.”
The boardroom has recently been fortified by the appointment of two new non-executive directors, the North Yorkshire-born, Sunderland-supporting Sky Sports presenter David Jones and Tom Sloanes, a Wearside-born businessman, but whether or not celebrations are in order before the summer solstice will be principally down to Parkinson’s players.
His USA international, Lynden Gooch, not only believes Sunderland can rise to the challenge but disputes claims the dressing room is divided. “It’s a good group of lads,” he maintains. “When Jack Ross was here he changed a lot and got a lot of good lads in; now we’ve just got to stick together.
“We’ve been through a lot, especially missing out on promotion by one win last season, but we’re still aiming to go up automatically. If you put three wins together on the bounce you’re in the top two, that’s how close this league is.
“You can’t get too down because you’re not going to get any success if you do that. Phil Parkinson hasn’t really had too much time on the training pitch to properly implement what he wants but we know we’ve got the quality. We’ve just got to keep plugging away and things will turn.”