WHEN Lawrie McMenemy took over as Sunderland manager in the summer of 1985, he pledged to take the club out of the Second Division. By the time he left almost two years later, he had been as good as his word. The following month, Sunderland were relegated to Division Three.

It was hard not to think of that story when listening to Ellis Short’s ‘State of the nation’ address on Friday night. Like McMenemy, Short does not regard the second tier as Sunderland’s natural habitat. His ambition remains to turn the club into a regular presence in the top seven. He is referring to the Premier League, but comes across as either deluded or deranged. By this time next year, if he still remains in charge, he might well be eyeing the play-off places in League One.

Make no mistake about it, this is not a Sunderland side that is ‘too good to go down’, and whoever is appointed to replace Simon Grayson in the next two weeks needs to immediately get his head around that fact. By all means talk of eventually restoring the club to its former glories. But don’t under-estimate the scale of the task at hand.

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You don’t find yourself at the foot of the table in November by accident. By the same token, you don’t pick up just one win from your opening 16 matches if there aren’t deep-rooted problems that urgently need to be addressed.

Having dropped to 24th position when Bolton Wanderers and Burton Albion both won on Saturday night, Sunderland find themselves at their lowest ebb since they also dropped to the foot of the Championship after Niall Quinn led them to a 3-1 defeat at Southend United. That was in August 2006, and nine months later, Roy Keane was hoisting the league winners’ trophy above his head. You’ll get some odds about Grayson’s successor doing the same next May.

Whether it’s Ally McCoist, who figured prominently in today’s newspaper headlines, potentially as part of a managerial tie-up with Walter Smith, or Aitor Karanka, who successfully guided Middlesbrough away from the Championship relegation zone before eventually leading them into the Premier League, Sunderland’s next manager will inherit a monumental mess.

The Black Cats weren’t embarrassed this lunch-time, but then aside from the capitulation at Ipswich Town in September, there haven’t been too many occasions this season where they have been comprehensively outclassed.

They’ve suffered plenty of defeats though, and just like today’s at the hands of their Tees-Wear derby rivals Middlesbrough, the majority have been largely of their own making. Boro were far from fluent from much of today’s game, but the brutal reality is that they didn’t have to be to record a routine home win.

Perhaps things would have been different if Lewis Grabban had avoided Darren Randolph’s legs when the ball dropped at his feet in the penalty area in the third minute, but then Sunderland’s season is already littered with a series of ‘What ifs’ and ‘What if nots’. When you’re a struggling side, you tend to take the wrong option.

Grabban took an eternity with the goal seemingly at his mercy, only to eventually pick out the one place where his shot could be stopped. Even at such at an early stage of the game, it felt like as pivotal miss.

Three minutes later, and Sunderland were behind, with Stewart Downing’s slide-rule through ball piercing their defence and Billy Jones failing to keep tabs on Marcus Tavernier as he sprinted across the six-yard box to convert at the front post.

Jones forced Randolph into a smart save a few moments later, heading towards goal after Aiden McGeady swung over a free-kick from the left, but the flag had already gone up for offside. Midway through the first half, and Jones’ game was over as he was forced to hobble off the field following a collision that occurred when he was effectively tackled by his team-mate, Darron Gibson. As a passage of play, it was a neat summation of Sunderland’s campaign.

Tackling each other, shooting themselves in the foot. This is a side that have perfected the art of taking a bad situation, and somehow making it worse.

Having been competitive for the majority of the first half, they were wretched after the interval, failing to force Randolph into a meaningful save in the whole of the second period.

Grabban dropped out of the game as an attacking force, McGeady did his usual trick of repeatedly threatening to influence the match without ever really grabbing it by the scruff of the neck, and a succession of Sunderland players faded badly as their fitness gave way.

Paddy McNair’s failure to see out the whole 90 minutes was understandable given he was making his first start since last November, and Ndong can hardly be blamed for picking up the injury that forced him off. But in John O’Shea, Darron Gibson and Lee Cattermole, Sunderland boast a clutch of key players whose stamina tends to give way before the final whistle. That is a major problem when the alternatives within the squad are so poor.

The likes of Jonny Williams, Callum McManaman and Marc Wilson have failed to make the kind of impact that was anticipated when they arrived on transfer deadline day, and it is becoming increasingly clear why Sunderland’s squad boasts a large number of players that other clubs did not want. The squad looks good on paper given the wealth of Premier League experience within it. The only problem is that you play football on the pitch.

Sunderland’s performances in that sphere have been nowhere near good enough this season, and while Stockdale can point to aspects of yesterday’s performance and claim his side do not deserve to be at the foot of the table, their results suggest they are the worst team in the second tier.

Short’s task, which he has delegated to Martin Bain, is to appoint a manager capable of addressing that failing. Otherwise, like with McMenemy in the 1980s, things will get a whole lot worse before they begin to improve.