WHEN Gustavo Poyet took over from Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland last October, he inherited a complete shambles.
The dressing room was divided, key players had been ostracised and the club had picked up just one point from the first seven Premier League matches. Even at that stage, the rot had well and truly set in.
With that in mind, it could be argued that simply by restoring Sunderland to the status of a functioning football club and providing even a semblance of hope that relegation could be avoided, Poyet has achieved more than could realistically have been expected of him.
He has repaired relationships, rebuilt reputations and successfully sifted through much of the wreckage bequeathed by Di Canio. He has also helped create some magical memories along the way – the semi-final win at Old Trafford, the 3-0 success at St James', the Capital One Cup final at Wembley, all moments that will be remembered for a lifetime.
Yet if, as now looks likely, Sunderland are relegated to the Championship next month, Poyet will have to accept his share of the blame. He will not be solely, or even primarily, responsible. Not by any means. But after guiding the Black Cats to 14th place in the table at the start of February, the Uruguayan has contributed to the subsequent decline that sees them four points adrift of safety with eight games remaining.
That is not to say he is not the right man for the job, or that his position should be questioned even if the worst-case scenario comes to pass next month. But when the final reckoning happens, and guilt is apportioned, Poyet's name will have to join those of Di Canio, Ellis Short, Roberto De Fanti and a whole host of players on the list of people who have let the club down.
Some key errors have proved especially crippling, with the first relating to the January transfer window, a month that offered Sunderland their last realistic shot at salvation.
With Short agreeing to fund a limited transfer foray in an attempt to ward off the threat of the drop, Poyet had resources at his disposal that might have made a difference.
The loan signings of Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini made sense, even if the latter has proved a disappointment, while the short-term capture of goalkeeper Oscar Ustari was similarly well judged.
However, the decision to spend £3.2m on Ignacio Scocco, an Argentinian striker who had never previously played in England, was spectacularly misguided. Sunderland desperately needed a forward who was capable of making an instant impact – instead they got a player who was always going to need to the rest of this season to settle.
Similarly, while Liam Bridcutt undoubtedly possesses a number of midfield qualities and is tailor-made for Poyet's preferred style of playing, a defensive midfielder was not what the Black Cats required given their struggles in front of goal. The £3m that was paid to Brighton could surely have been better used.
In Poyet's defence, the window arrived just as Sunderland were jettisoning the disastrous De Fanti, so he received precious little support when it came to signings. The Black Cats boss will still have to play a role in this summer's extensive overhaul, but it is to be hoped the appointment of Lee Congerton as sporting director provides greater direction to the overall recruitment operation.
The window closed on January 31, but by the time Sunderland travelled to Hull City for their FA Cup quarter-final on March 9, they were still reasonably well placed. They had slipped back into the bottom three, but boasted three games in hand, and the momentum generated by their Capital One Cup run was still very much in evidence.
It dissipated at the KC Stadium, largely because of Poyet's decision to name a weakened side against the Tigers, a move that was heavily criticised by Sunderland's fans.
Poyet can argue, with some justification, that the internationals he recalled should have fared much better than a tame 3-0 defeat. But the extent of the second-half collapse, and the bitter disappointment at missing out on a second trip to Wembley, had far-reaching repercussions that are still being felt.
Suddenly, there was nothing else to look forward to, with the harsh realities of the relegation battle staring everyone squarely in the face. In their four matches since their FA Cup exit, Sunderland have picked up just a solitary point from a tame home draw with Crystal Palace.
Did Poyet's tactics in those crucial games contribute to the outcome? Undoubtedly. Having switched to a five-man defence at Liverpool in an attempt to neuter a rampant Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, it was hard to see why he stuck with the same formation for Monday's home game against a West Ham side that was always going to feature a lone centre-forward.
Why was Adam Johnson, Sunderland's most creative player all season, on the bench for 53 minutes while Phil Bardsley was charged with being the key attacking outlet down the flank?
In earlier games, why was Jozy Alitdore named in the starting line-up at Norwich and Liverpool when he has only scored one Premier League goal all season? And why is Poyet so reluctant to modify his preferred midfield system in order to get more players into attacking positions?
They are all relevant questions, and while they do not fully explain why Sunderland have now gone seven games in all competitions without a win, they provide enough evidence to suggest that Poyet is not blameless.
To reiterate, that is not to suggest that he is a bad manager, or indeed that anyone else would have been able to fashion a different outcome. If Sunderland are relegated next month, they will go down because the players have not been good enough. It is as simple as that.
But Poyet will have been part of the process that has resulted in relegation, and he will have to accept that in order to regroup and move on.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
The Hartlepool United boss was at Westminster this week to attend a reception for the charity he set up in the memory of his son, Finlay. The Finlay Cooper Fund has donated more than £350,000 to children's charities since it was established in 2002, with former Middlesbrough skipper Cooper continuing to play a driving role.
CHUMPS OF THE WEEK
ENGLAND'S TWENTY20 CRICKET TEAM
The homepage of the Dutch Cricket Association's website features a section entitled 'What is cricket?', yet the Netherlands still managed to pile further embarrassment on England's players by subjecting them to a 45-run defeat in the World Twenty20. A fitting end to a thoroughly miserable winter.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
REAL MADRID vs BORUSSIA DORTMUND
Dortmund might not be the force they were 12 months ago, but Real Madrid's emphatic 3-0 win over the German side in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final was still an impressive outcome. With Gareth Bale playing an increasingly prominent role, Real will be hard to stop in the rest of the competition.
CHARITY BET OF THE WEEKEND
Another blank day last Saturday as the opening day of the Flat season at Doncaster proved predictably difficult to negotiate. It's the big one tomorrow of course, with Aintree hosting the Grand National, so follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter to see where the charity money is going. Running total: +£17.38