THE storm clouds were brewing at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday evening, but then they have been for more than half-a-decade. Sunderland don’t need Storm Aileen to create a powerful bout of depression.

Beaten for the fourth successive game, and floundering just one point above the Championship relegation zone, the Black Cats have the feel of a club being swept in a downward direction, without any means of addressing their fate.

Where they will eventually end up is anyone’s guess, but having grasped at a rare moment of hope when the season began with a spirited draw with Derby and an excellent win at Norwich, plenty of supporters are already nervously eyeing the relegation zone and wondering if Sunderland could be the latest club to find that a fall from grace does not necessarily end in the second tier. Judging by the legion of empty seats at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday, others have simply given up.

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There are a myriad of reasons for Sunderland’s fall, most of which have been endlessly discussed and debated over the last few years. Clearly, Ellis Short has to carry the can for many of the failings, with his willingness to invest to keep the club afloat an insufficient pay-off for the countless disastrous decisions that have been taken on his watch. At some stage he will sell up, but until that happens, those employed beneath him will simply have to soldier on.

That means Simon Grayson having to endure more nights like Tuesday, when the sense of inevitability about Daryl Murphy’s late winner grew stronger with every minute that passed. Grayson was right to claim his players had produced a much-improved performance from their desultory display against Sheffield United three days earlier, but as seasoned Sunderland watchers will know, all too often that counts for little.

Grayson did his best in the transfer window, when he was forced to sign ten players for just £1.25m, and will continue to do his best when it comes to selecting the personnel in the starting XI and settling on the tactics to try to get a result.

Ultimately, though, it will come down to the players on the pitch, and that is where, for better or worse, there will have to be a degree of patience. This is a side that has been cobbled together over the last few weeks, comprising players that were either unfit, unwanted or dreadfully out of form.

That is what you get when you can barely afford to pay a transfer fee, so while managers are often ridiculed for constantly demanding more time, the simple truth is this Sunderland side will not improve overnight.

There will be more nights like Tuesday, more afternoons like last weekend. You don’t transform four or five seasons of marked decay in the space of a couple of matches, but in time, it has to be hoped that the new signings will bed in and a functioning Championship side will emerge.

At some stage, you have to put an end to the constant upheaval and say, ‘This is where we are’. That time has arrived on Wearside, so while it is hard to grasp at incremental improvements in the face of back-to-back home defeats to Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, the search for progress has to go on.

A majority of the side that started against Forest have no recollection of the failings of the past because they were elsewhere when they occurred. They certainly know about them now though, and avoiding a sense of fatalism could be one of the hardest challenges facing Sunderland’s players this season.

The more they are told, ‘This club is cursed’, the more they will come to believe it. So while performances clearly have to improve, especially in both penalty areas, mental strength will be the key asset Grayson will be searching for in the next few weeks.

“I’d rather lose after a game like that, than after a game where we didn’t play well,” said goalkeeper Robbin Ruiter, whose positivity might jar with some supporters, but whose attempts to remain upbeat are nevertheless important. “If you play really bad and there’s no confidence at all, there’s a lot of work to do.

“There still is, but there were some positive things. We just have to be more clinical in the opposition box and make sure we can keep a clean sheet. Unfortunately, we conceded in the 86th minute or something, and we lost the game, but we were way better than our opponent, way better than the last couple of games, and if we can play like that, we’re going to win, I’m sure about that.”

Sunderland’s record over the last few years suggests it would be dangerous to take anything for granted, but Grayson was clutching at the same crumbs of comfort in the aftermath of Tuesday’s game.

“I’m not worried because you saw the team play with confidence,” he said. “They did some good stuff. We were bright in certain areas, and we’re going to get better. You can’t expect things to happen overnight, or the confidence to be back at a high level straight away. That’s what we’re trying to build on and improve.”

Grayson knows where he wants to get to, and remains convinced he is going to make it. At Sunderland, however, things have a tendency to be blown off course. Can he withstand the battering and emerge to plot his own course?