WHEN the story of Sunderland’s calamitous decline is told in a couple of decades’ time, the role played by Jack Rodwell will barely merit a footnote. Yet when it comes to explaining why the club finds itself at the foot of the Championship table, saddled with debts of more than £100m, the tale of the invisible England international could hardly be more instructive.

Even for a club that has set new standards of ineptitude in the last few years, Rodwell’s three-and-a-half years as a Sunderland player represent a remarkable new low. And despite this week’s talk of cancelled contracts and mutual agreements, the most staggering aspect of all is that there could still be another 18 months of this sorry saga to run.

The numbers make for harrowing reading. Rodwell was signed from Manchester City for £10m in August 2014, and is understood to have been awarded a five-year contract worth £70,000-a-week.

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He has spent 180 weeks as a Sunderland player, picking up £12.6m in wages. In that time, he has made 76 senior appearances, 23 of which were as a substitute. If his transfer fee and wages are combined, he has cost Sunderland £299,000 per appearance. Or to put it another way, the club has shelled out more than £4,700 for every minute he has been on the field.

Perhaps that would have been worth it if Rodwell had been leading Sunderland to a succession of Premier League wins. Instead, the 26-year-old has made 44 league starts for the Black Cats – and only one of those games resulted in a victory. To all intents and purposes, Sunderland have spent more than £22m to secure a 4-0 win at Crystal Palace in February 2017.

The sums are staggering, and if Rodwell opts to see out the remainder of his contract, he will leave the Stadium of Light having earned £18.2m in wages over the duration of his deal. Plus the one win bonus from Selhurst Park.

Rarely can a player have taken so much for so little, and having completely fallen out of love with the game over the course of the last 12 months, it would suit everyone for Rodwell to walk away and make a new start.

A player with three senior England caps to his name, and who was once touted as the answer to this country’s central-midfield issues, would have the opportunity to rebuild his career while there might still be clubs in the top two divisions willing to take a chance on him. Chris Coleman would have a £70,000-a-week gap in his wage bill, waiting to be filled by some much-needed acquisitions. And Sunderland would be able to move on from an extremely costly mistake.

It all sounds so easy, yet the fact that Rodwell remains on Sunderland’s books despite having asked to leave at the start of the month proves it is anything but. The reality is that the Black Cats’ highest-paid player is perfectly within his rights to sit tight for the next 18 months and continue to count his money. Ultimately, it is the club to blame for the current shambles, not him.

What on earth were Sunderland thinking back in 2014 when they signed off the Rodwell deal and agreed to the midfielder being one of the only players on the club’s books not to have a relegation clause inserted into his contract?

The transfer made no sense at the time, and is even harder to explain now, yet it was far from the only instance of dreadful decision making to have occurred on Ellis Short’s watch. In fact, the Rodwell signing fits neatly into a pattern of chaotic management that has driven Sunderland to the brink of League One.

Two-and-a-half months before Rodwell arrived, Sunderland had clambered to Premier League safety under Gus Poyet. They were locked into a recurring narrative. New manager arrives and drags the team out of the bottom three. New manager asks for a barrel-load of money and is given it to make new signings. New manager abandons everything that his predecessor had been building. New manager starts to struggle, is sacked, and becomes the old manager. A new manager is appointed and the whole sorry cycle starts again.

The upshot was that Sunderland signed 45 players under a succession of different bosses, and made a profit on just three of them. That’s how you rack up £100m of debt even though your owner continues tipping money down a black hole.

Sporting director Lee Congerton was in charge of recruitment when Rodwell was signed, and no doubt wanted to make his mark. Margaret Byrne was the chief executive charged with the task of drawing up contracts, and appears to have been out of her depth from the outset. Poyet wanted high-profile new signings, and was delighted to see Sunderland outbid a number of their Premier League rivals to land a player who had recently been playing for England.

No matter that his injury record at Manchester City had been abject. Never mind that Sunderland were already reasonably well-stocked with central midfielders. Don’t worry about the contract that made him the highest-paid player on the club’s books. Why worry about the future when you’re trying to win an opening-day game against West Brom?

Rodwell signed at a time when the future seemed irrelevant. Sunderland never looked beyond the next 12 months – or at least they didn’t until they were relegated and Short decided to bail out. Then, the situation changed, and Rodwell went from being a costly annoyance to a millstone dragging the club towards oblivion.

When he looks in the mirror, Sunderland’s £4,700-a-minute man will face some difficult questions about his integrity and professionalism. Ultimately, though, it is the mistakes made by others that have made him such a costly mistake.