WITH only one, barely full, stand officially open on the day Jack Ross’ 16-month reign as Sunderland manager came to an end, this was an outing in a competition the club has had a short association with – and provided a reminder of the challenge that still faces whoever is next to agree to take it on.

Stewart Donald, the club’s owner, was not one of those in attendance as the Black Cats began their second season in the EFL Trophy (for those clubs outside the top two divisions), seven months after losing out to Portsmouth in front of 80,000 at Wembley which, in hindsight, was the first real hammer blow to Ross’ tenure.

Donald has other things than a hard-earned 3-2 victory over Grimsby Town on his mind, like finding Sunderland’s tenth manager in eight seasons, and trying to resurrect a deal with American investors to takeover the club. Beyond those discussions, Sunderland must find a way to breathe fresh life into a push for automatic promotion that is yet to really get going.

Criticism of Donald has grown among the supporters, but with the international break allowing a free weekend he has extra time to see come up with the right man on the managerial front. He has always maintained he has Sunderland’s best interests at heart, now he must prove it.

Sunderland may no longer have the lure of the Premier League, or the riches that level of football brings, to attract the sort of name they have in the past. But like Ross, who turned down Ipswich Town in the Championship to head for Wearside in the summer of 2018, interested candidates will be looking at the bigger picture.

Unlike the near 7,000 that watched a relatively strong Sunderland team defeat Grimsby in their opening Northern Group A match in the EFL Trophy courtesy of late goals from Duncan Watmore, Marc McNulty and Will Grigg, Ross’ eventual successor will know there will be around the 30,000-mark turning up weekly to watch League One football.

That remains a staggering figure after the disappointment of losing out on promotion last season, but it is indicative of just how big the sleeping giant of a club is. But Sunderland – be it under Donald, the Americans or someone else – have to find solutions to bring an end to their longest stay outside the top two divisions.

“The reality of this club is we have the best travel arrangements, the best medical investment and facilities, the best budget, I believe the best squad. We are extremely well funded at this level,” said Donald.

“We ripped the scouting back and now we are investing half a million pounds investing in scouts in Scandinavia, Ireland and England. We are, I thought, the most professional League One club there’s ever been.

“With that set-up, I think it’s fair to expect us to deliver success. I don’t accept we are a mess. Results aren’t where we want them, but Jack will turn around and say how many games has he lost? It’s a fair argument.”

That, rightly or wrongly with fans unable to dispute, forms the basis of why Donald decided to act, even if Ross could point to just seven defeats from his 60 matches in charge (only Liverpool and Manchester City have lost fewer in English football during the same period). His 23 draws were just as crucial to his demise though.

Donald said: “The level of investment in the team we have spent a lot of money acquiring players and spent money on wages. Look at the players making up the majority of this year’s budget, it’s a big budget.

“There’s a huge influx if players in and out and that’s an issue for Jack to deal with. You can’t say we aren’t the biggest spenders in the league. What’s been inherited has been a problem, but has that stopped us investing in the team? I don’t think so. We have competed with Championship clubs for players.”

Sunderland certainly have a big squad by League One standards. Whether it is good enough will depend on whether the new manager can get the best out of them – and make them more clinical.

The team that fell behind to Grimsby certainly had plenty of experience and quality despite a raft of changes, relatively speaking, in it for an EFL Trophy opener, although Sunderland struggled to get the job done; but why change the habit of the last year-and-a-half, or even longer.

Luke O’Nien, playing on the left, Watmore and Grigg all had chances saved by Grimsby’s James McKeown, while Town’s Matt Green threatened in the first half when he had an effort stopped by goalkeeper Lee Burge.

Watmore, back in action after injury, provided a positive sight and he was unfortunate after the restart when McKeown denied him a second time when the forward met Denver Hume’s low cross from the left.

But the League Two side took the lead on the hour when the lively Green got in behind debutant defender Brandon Taylor to volley Jake Hessenthaler’s cross beyond Burge.  

It was a lead that lasted eight minutes because Watmore was first to react to a loose ball in the area and fire low and beyond McKeown after he had got down low to save George Dobson’s low drive.

It was Sunderland’s turn to take the lead when 11 minutes from time McNulty’s first time effort from O’Nien’s cut back was helped into the net by Mattie Pollock.

Less than two minutes later, though, Grimsby’s Elliott Whitehouse hammered in from close range after Pollock had got to the line too easily.

Just when it seemed penalties were on the cards, Grigg wriggled free of his marker to head the winner from Hume’s cross with four minutes remaining, before Hartlepool-born teenager Cole Kiernan made his late bow. A strange day, but at least it ended on a winning note.