JASON STEELE knows all about what can happen at a football club when the rot sets in. Last season, he was part of a Blackburn Rovers side that were relegated from the Championship. Blackburn Rovers, former Premier League champions, the ‘club that Jack built’, one of English football’s most famous old names. Now languishing in mid-table in League One.

Like Sunderland, Steele’s current employers, Blackburn were a club that suffered a painful drop out of the Premier League. Off-field issues meant money was tight. Attendances dropped dramatically as supporters grew apathetic, and failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With every bad result, the spiral became worse. Eventually, it was impossible to get out of the tail-spin.

The parallels with the current situation at Sunderland are both obvious and unavoidable, and Steele is only too aware of how quickly things can deteriorate. He lived through the decline at Ewood Park, and does not want to experience the same thing at the Stadium of Light.

Loading article content

Turning things around is clearly not going to be easy, but Steele feels the starting point has to be getting the basics right. Running, tackling, being organised and hard to break down. It sounds like obvious stuff, but it is everything that was missing as Sunderland capitulated in Tuesday’s humiliating 5-2 defeat at Ipswich Town.

“I suppose you could say that,” said Steele, when asked whether Sunderland’s plight mirrors the problems he experienced at Blackburn last season. “But it has a lot to do with how hard you work.

“By the end of the season last year (at Blackburn), we should never have gone down. We were better than a lot of teams, but you have to work hard in this league, and if you don’t, like the first half (at Ipswich) then…

“Are Ipswich a better team than us on paper? You wouldn’t say yes, would you? You’d say no straight away, but hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. I can’t put my finger on it at the moment.”

Steele was part of an impassioned dressing-room inquest that saw Sunderland’s players take more than half-an-hour to emerge into the corridors at Portman Road.

Harsh truths were aired, frank views exchanged. As Simon Grayson put it in his post-match press conference, one of the club’s younger players stood in front of the rest of the group and told them they were “soft as shit”.

Such moments can sometimes transform a season, and Newcastle supporters will point to a similar dressing-room dressing-down after a pre-season thrashing at Leyton Orient as the point at which Chris Hughton’s side became capable of winning promotion back to the top-flight. Jamaal Lascelles initiated a similar change of mind-set with some equally scathing criticism in the latter stages of the Magpies’ most recent relegation campaign.

Can the same thing happen at Sunderland? That has to be the hope, although it remains to be seen whether there is sufficient character, resolve and professionalism within the current Black Cats squad to enact such a change.

“Maybe it needs to be the lads, just with each other,” said Steele, whose emotional honesty in the wake of Tuesday’s collapse at least suggests he cares enough to try to make a difference. “I don’t know, it’s us that cross the line at the end of the day, there’s only so much the manager can do.

“It’s the lads who cross the white line, and for the first half (at Ipswich), even for 75 minutes, it was, well, rubbish.

“It’s just not good enough, I don’t really know what else to say. It’s hard to take at the minute, it’s raw. But it’s a time where we have to reflect and really get amongst each other to see what we’re going to do about it. That was…crap.”

The accusation from some supporters is that the players simply don’t care, but things are more nuanced and complicated than that. Some members of the current squad might not want to be there – Lamine Kone in particular has been desperate to move for the best part of two seasons – and there are players who have been at Sunderland for three or four years who have become accustomed to failure.

Others have just arrived this summer though, and while they might have walked into a dressing room that has developed a losing habit, it is facile to cite a simple lack of desire as the root cause of Sunderland’s problems.

That said, though, Steele accepts that if players do not want to be part of what is going to be a long, painful battle, it is time for them to step aside.

“If you find a lad that isn’t hurting, then there’s something wrong,” he said. “That’s what I think. It’s tough to lose a football match like that, that’s not what you get into football for. It’s crap to be honest. It’s not good enough, and it’s not nice.

“I don’t know whether I’m coming across the right way. Maybe I’m not, maybe I should be trying to be more positive – I don’t know, it’s just me. I think we’ve got to work hard over the next couple of days on the training ground to put it right, it’s as simple as that.”