SUNDERLAND have lost a lot of things over the last four or five years. Matches, obviously. Plenty of them. They’ve waved goodbye to four permanent managers since the start of 2017 and have also lost their position in both the Premier League and Championship. Goodness only knows how much money has been wasted during that period.

Yet as he reflects on the current state of things from the luxury Oxfordshire home that was given such prominence in the second series of ‘Sunderland Til I Die’, Stewart Donald might well reflect that the most important thing he has squandered since taking over at the Stadium of Light in the summer of 2018 is the trust of the club’s supporters. Without that, everything else is falling apart around him.

Put simply, Sunderland fans no longer believe a single word that is uttered by the current regime. The trust and loyalty that was bestowed so freely when Donald first replaced Ellis Short, promising openness, transparency and a frank two-way dialogue with the fanbase, has completely disappeared. In its place, frustration, bitterness and anger have festered to the point where the relationship between Sunderland’s boardroom management and the fans has broken down entirely. As a result, every move or utterance that emanates from Sunderland’s executive-level managers is treated with suspicion or open disdain.

Take the long-running farce over ticket refunds for example. First, season-ticket holders were told they would not get a monetary refund for matches that might not take place in the current campaign. That was changed. Then, people who had committed to buying a season-ticket for next season were told they would not be refunded for any matches that subsequently took place behind-closed-doors. Again, that policy was reversed.

At the end of last month, Sunderland announced their refund policy for the matches that did not take place when the League One season was curtailed. Season-ticket holders, the most loyal of the loyal, were told they would have to wait until the end of August to be repaid, whereas those who had bought individual match tickets were promised their money in July. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from the club’s most committed supporters was one of furious bewilderment.

It could be that the successive bad moves are a result of simple incompetence. An alternative scenario, however, is that Sunderland have been desperate to hold on to their supporters’ money for as long as possible to help solve short-term issues with cash flow. That is a perfectly understandable response to an unforeseeable crisis that has robbed the club of the income that would ordinarily have been generated by the final three home games of the season.

Yet if that has been Sunderland’s rationale, rather than being up front about their objectives, the club’s hierarchy has shied away from saying to the fans, ‘Look, we really need your money at the minute. If you can spare it, let us keep it and we’ll try to reimburse you at some stage’. Had Donald still had any credit in the bank, or had the fans still felt a loyal attachment to the ruling regime, plenty would have willingly helped out.

For another example of the chronic breakdown in trust and affection, take the ongoing uncertainty about the future of Sunderland’s category one academy. Jim Rodwell, the club’s new chief executive, could not have been more unequivocal when he outlined a commitment to retaining the academy’s current grading last week. “Next season, we will be a category one academy, simple as that,” said Rodwell. “And we are committed beyond that as well.”

Yet rather than being welcomed as a strong sign of an ongoing commitment to youth, Rodwell’s words have been met with either scepticism or outright disbelief. Most Sunderland fans seem to either not believe what they are being told, or view the continued support for the academy as a way for Donald and his fellow owners to sell off the Black Cats’ brightest young talents in order to line their own pockets. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. Either way, what should have been a positive announcement has become another stick with which to beat the current regime.

How can Donald and his fellow directors extricate themselves from this cycle of derision? By selling up is the easy answer, although as the insurance expert is learning to his cost, selling a League One football club in the face of a global pandemic is not the easiest of tasks. There has been interest in Sunderland in the last 12 months, but it has faltered once numbers start to be discussed. As things stand, there does not appear to be a realistic prospect of Sunderland changing hands before the start of next season, even if that start is delayed well into September.

So what else could Donald do? Well, the single biggest move he could make would be the immediate repayment of the balance that is owed to the club by Madrox, the company he set up to act as the ownership vehicle for Sunderland. In May, that balance stood at around £11.5m. Last week, Rodwell said, “The money that Madrox have committed to put back into the football club is getting put back in quicker (than planned).” But that vague assurance is not good enough.

How much has been repaid? When will the rest be returned? These will no doubt be difficult times for Donald’s core business, but until he repays his debt and is completely open and transparent when it comes to the state of Sunderland’s finances, anything else he says or does will be rendered meaningless.

Sunderland’s fans feel they have been taken for a ride, and that feeling will not disappear until the financial slate is wiped clean. Until then, they will regard anything the club does, no matter how well intentioned, as having an ulterior and unpalatable motive.