THESE are not easy times to be a Sunderland supporter. If, as looks increasingly likely, the Black Cats are relegated this season, and if, as is distinctly possible, Spennymoor Town are promoted, there will be just one division separating the two clubs next term. Let that sink in for a moment.

In part, it is a reflection of just how far Spennymoor have risen in the last few years, but it is also a damning indictment of the extent of Sunderland’s decline. When I raised the possibility on social media over the weekend, it is safe to say it caused quite a stir.

Amid that backdrop, it is no wonder that some Sunderland fans are calling for a coordinated protest as their club stands on the brink of relegation to the third tier for only the second time in its history. The popular website, Roker Report, ran a poll at the start of the week that showed around two-thirds of respondents supporting the suggestion of a protest “aimed at highlighting the situation that Sunderland AFC finds itself in, both on and off the pitch”.

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Many supporters have already voted with their feet. Sunderland’s average home attendance in the Championship this season might officially be published as 27,708, but that is a reflection of the number of tickets sold rather than the number of bodies actually passing through the gates. I know plenty of season-ticket holders who are opting to stay away on a Saturday afternoon as apathy takes hold, and last weekend, as Sunderland crashed to another demoralising home defeat to Ipswich Town, it felt as though the club was hurtling towards the abyss amid a backdrop of resigned acceptance.

With that in mind, perhaps a public protest would spark some much-needed life into things. Maybe if voices were raised and passions inflamed, lapsed attendees would remember what made following Sunderland so important to them in the first place. Anger, if properly channelled, can be a unifying and energising emotion.

However, protests only really work if there is someone or something to aim that anger against, and that is where the situation at Sunderland becomes markedly more complicated. Ask who is to blame for the current mess, and the answer might not be as clear cut as you would think.

There is certainly no mood to start being overly critical of Chris Coleman, who is doing his level best to try to keep Sunderland out of the bottom three. Most fans still can’t understand why the former Wales boss opted to move to the Stadium of Light in the first place, and the problems he finds himself wrestling with are not of his making. His refusal to talk Sunderland down is greatly appreciated given some of his predecessors’ more negative comments.

Similarly, while the current squad of players have managed just two home wins all season, there is a reluctance to aim too much bile at a group that, for the most part, are trying their best to overcome their obvious limitations. Some players could be pushing themselves that little bit harder – Coleman has admitted as much publicly – but in the main, Sunderland are a cobbled-together collection of youngsters, cast-offs and players who were not good enough to keep the club in the Premier League. They might make mistakes, but there is a reason why they have ended up on Wearside.

All of which leaves us with Ellis Short, the absentee owner who has overseen Sunderland’s decline from established Premier League force to footballing basket case. If there are to be protests, Short will be the focus of much of the ire, and he can have no complaints about his status as the club’s chief villain.

He has made a succession of disastrous decisions since buying out the Drumaville consortium in 2008, repeatedly appointing people to positions of authority even though they lacked the required qualifications for the role. Chief executives, directors of football, managers, players. All were appointed on vast amounts of money; the vast majority were jettisoned when it became apparent they were not up to the task.

In a five-year spell prior to Sunderland’s final season in the Premier League, the club bought 45 players and made a profit on just four. That is a horrendous way to try to run a football club, and with managers passing through the Stadium of Light’s revolving doors at a ridiculous rate, Sunderland’s debts ballooned while Short, an investment banker, was supposed to be keeping an eye on the balance sheet.

The club’s last accounts, published last April, revealed a debt of £110m. That figure will have fallen slightly following last summer’s sale of Jordan Pickford, and the wage bill will also have come down significantly from the eye-popping figure of £83.8m that was published last spring. Both remain at  a completely unsustainable level though, given that Sunderland’s turnover will have dropped by around 50 per cent in the wake of relegation, even accounting for the first tranche of parachute payments received from the Premier League.

Short’s tenure has been a disaster, but the Irish-American banker accepts that and wants to sell up. Sunderland has effectively been on the market for more than a year now, but aside from some interest from a mysterious German group last summer, no one is interested in taking over.

At some stage, Short, who is now based almost exclusively in the United States, might simply decide to walk away. But that would leave Sunderland in a far worse position than the one they are currently wrestling with.

The most recent accounts showed Sunderland losing around £3m-a-month. Short was the one plugging that shortfall, and he continues to make regular payments just to keep the club afloat. If those payments stop, it will not be long before Sunderland are unable to meet their monthly commitments. That would mean administration, relegation to League One with a points deduction, and financial meltdown on a scale far outstripping anything that is currently being experienced.

That is why, despite all his failings, Short remains the one figure that Sunderland cannot afford to lose, or at least not until there is a viable alternative guaranteeing the financial stability of the club. It is also why the situation at Sunderland is different to the one at Newcastle, where Mike Ashley has long since given up pumping a regular supply of his own money into the Magpies.

Newcastle, with their largely self-sustaining model, could function without Ashley. As things stand, Sunderland could not function without Short.

That is why while a protest might achieve a galvanising effect in the short-term, it could have disastrous consequences if it results in Short turning his back on the club for good.

It might not seem like it at the moment, but this is not Sunderland bottoming out. There is still the potential for things to get a whole lot worse. If relegation is followed by administration, Spennymoor could yet end up being Sunderland’s North-East derby. Now that really is quite a thought.