SUNDERLAND’S owners do not go in for hiding away. From the moment they walked through the entrance door at the Stadium of Light, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven have been keen to cultivate a new relationship with the club’s supporters by being as visible as possible.

It is a refreshing change from the shroud of secrecy adopted by the Ellis Short regime, and so in the last couple of weeks, both Donald and Methven have been speaking to a range of media outlets and fans groups to spell out the position they have moved Sunderland into after five months in charge.

Their main message? There has been positive progress, but there is still a long way to go. Given the extent of the mess they inherited, that is probably as good as anyone could have hoped for, particularly when things are also going well on the field.

The harsh reality is that Sunderland are still not financially stable, indeed even if they were to win promotion this season, a point where they were both self-sustaining and competitive in the Championship would still be some way off.

When Donald took over from Short at the start of the summer, he walked into a club that had a cost base of around £64m. Projected revenue in League One was around £15m, so there was an immediate move to reduce costs to £50m. Players were released, staff were made redundant, and the desired savings were achieved. Still, though, there was a £35m hole in the budget.

This season’s parachute payment couldn’t be used to plug the gap as it had already been earmarked for paying off historical transfer fees and debt reduction, so before the season started, there was a requirement to further reduce costs.

More players left, with some, such as Wahbi Khazri and Joel Asoro bringing in decent fees. However, the departure of Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong became a protracted mess, with the former still hoping to win a legal battle that could force Sunderland into honouring the contract they tore up in September. We should know how that has played out by the end of the month.

Significantly, two or three players who might have been expected to leave, remained. Lee Cattermole, Bryan Oviedo and Aiden McGeady have made significant contributions to Jack Ross’ first-team squad, but their Premier League wages are a major drain on Sunderland’s finances.

As a result, while the club’s cost base has reduced further, to around £28m, it is still out of kilter with the money that is coming in. Sunderland have increased their revenue projections in the last few months, partly thanks to the size of their home crowds and partly, according to Methven, to the efforts of new director Neil Fox.

Annual income has leapt to around £18.5m, meaning as things stand, Sunderland are projected to lose around £10m a year. Despite the arrival of Juan Sartori to provide additional support, that is still unsustainable, but the intention is to close the gap further in the next 12 months.

Methven has confirmed that the Stadium of Light will once again stage summer concerts next year, and Donald’s right-hand man is confident Sunderland will continue to stay within the parameters of the FFI (Future Financial Agreement) that was agreed with the Football League prior to the start of the season. That agreement effectively dictates how much debt Sunderland can incur.

The general trend is undoubtedly positive, but a couple of potential obstacles are visible on the horizon. The January transfer window is the first, with Ross’ understandable desire to tinker with his squad having to be posited against a need to keep outgoings under tight control.

The savings from Djilobodji and Ndong’s departures have already been budgeted for, so any new arrivals would mean additional debt unless they were offset by savings elsewhere. That effectively means departures, and it is clear that if Ross wants to add to his squad in January, one or two well-paid players will have to leave.

Oviedo and McGeady are the most obvious options given the size of their earnings and the fact they have not been consistent starters this season, but as the summer proved, it is not always easy to move on high-earning players with long-term contracts. The harsh reality is that Sunderland could find it difficult to reject realistic offers for anyone come the turn of the year.

The second potential difficulty relates to the contract talks that are ongoing with Josh Maja, Lynden Gooch and Denver Hume, all of whom are due to become free agents in the summer. Donald, Methven and Ross have all expressed confidence that the trio will remain, but given the delicate financial balancing act that Sunderland’s owners are having to perform, it is surely fanciful to imagine that the three players have been offered terms way in excess of what they are currently earning.

Will that be sufficient to persuade them to sign, especially if their agents sense an opportunity for a big summer payday? It might be, and promotion back to the Championship would obviously help, but as Methven has admitted, there will come a point where if talks are going nowhere, Sunderland will have to switch to self-protection mode in order to maximise the return from three of their biggest assets. That point might well be January if discussions grind to a complete halt.

So there are hurdles that will have to be negotiated, and Ross could yet find his squad turned upside down when he would much rather focus on winning promotion. He has dealt with the politics of life at Sunderland adeptly so far though, and while the size of the Black Cats’ budget dwarfs those of their League One rivals, their manager deserves huge credit for the way in which he has conducted himself.

The same is true of Donald and Methven, whose honesty and openness have been a stark and welcome contrast to the wall of silence that was built around the previous regime.

Their efforts to rebuild the relationship with Sunderland’s fans have been a huge success – involving supporters in the replacing of the Stadium of Light seats was a masterstroke – and their attempts to rebalance the books have got off to a good start. Let us hope their next update is equally positive.