BY common consensus, clubs in the Football League are about to hit crunch time. Up until now, they have just about managed to fend off financial ruin thanks to a combination of advanced solidarity payments from the Premier League, payment windows from HMRC and the scant reserves that had been built up before Covid struck. Come next month, though, when another round of wages and utility bills will be due, the full effect of having to survive with virtually no income will be felt.

Perhaps a much-promised bailout from the Premier League will finally arrive. ‘Project Big Picture’ is clearly dead in the water, but the top-flight’s offer of £50m that was rejected at an EFL board meeting last week could be revived, or the Premier League’s rulers could come to their senses and put together a new package that does not have so many strings attached. Alternatively, of course, Manchester United and Liverpool could continue to devote their attention to pie-in-the-sky ideas for a European Super League rather than concentrating on the crisis unfolding on their doorstep.

Either way, the idea that EFL finances will return to anything approaching normal without fans being allowed to return to matches is fanciful, so for the bulk of the rest of the season at least, club owners in the Football League will almost certainly have to be prepared to take a hit. When it comes to keeping their club afloat, much of the onus for plugging the gaping financial gaps will be laid at their door.

At Middlesbrough, Steve Gibson will do whatever is required to keep things going. He has grown accustomed to having to put his hand in his pocket in recent years - £1m-a-month has been the going rate for his personal commitment for much of Boro’s time outside the Premier League – so while he might have been a vocal advocate for the ‘Project Big Picture’ plans and a passionate campaigner for financial assistance from the top-flight, Middlesbrough’s owner will not allow his club to go to the wall.

Will the same be true of Stewart Donald at Sunderland? That is a question that is difficult to answer at the moment, but unlike at Middlesbrough, where the top of the club remains rock solid, the fact that Sunderland’s ownership situation remains in a state of flux has to be a concern as the financial picture worsens.

At this point, it is important to clarify that Sunderland are not in an especially parlous financial state. In fact, thanks to the debt write-off from the Ellis Short era and the huge reduction in the wage bill over the last few seasons, they are in a much better position than the vast majority of their League One rivals. While the introduction of a salary cap earlier this summer might have limited Sunderland’s ability to flex their muscles on the pitch, it limited the extent to which they could load additional sums onto their outgoings. As time progresses and Covid continues to bite, that could prove a blessing in disguise.

However, that is not to say there will not be bumps in the road because there will almost certainly be moments in the not-too-distant future when shareholder investment will be required. The demands of running the Stadium of Light, not to mention the requirements of maintaining a category one academy, mean Sunderland’s monthly expenditure dwarfs that of any other League One club.

So given he has spent more than a year trying to sell up, will Donald be prepared to spend more money if or when gaps appear? The answer to that might well depend on how the sale process is going, and that is where things begin to become difficult.

The fact is that outside of Donald and a very small group of interested parties, no one knows the exact state of takeover proceedings. It is often claimed that takeovers tend to go through when no one knows anything about them, but the fact that Donald’s dealings since the start of the summer have been shrouded in so much mystery is alarming given the state of the wider footballing world. Is Sunderland on the brink of being sold, or have takeover talks stalled in the midst of a global health pandemic? The answer to that question is critical given everything else that is going on.

Donald’s last public comments on the situation came in July when he appeared at a heated meeting with supporters’ groups. Emotions were running high, with Donald effectively accusing some fans of helping to scupper previous takeover attempts, but the upshot was that, at that time at least, a deal was not imminent.

Things changed a few weeks later when it emerged Donald had entered into a period of exclusivity with an unnamed potential buyer. The claims were never formally confirmed by the club, but they were not dismissed either, which generally tends to be telling. At the time, it was suggested a deal could be completed by the start of the season. That then became the start of October. By next week, November will have arrived.

There have been no further public comments, and when chief executive Jim Rodwell appeared on Sky Sports earlier this month to discuss ‘Project Big Picture’, he made no mention of any takeover talks.

Sunderland face some big decisions in the next few months. The club continues to operate without a chairman of the board, the position of academy manager remains unfilled and a raft of key players are due to become free agents next summer.

Most pressingly of all, though, there could well come a time soon when the money runs out and external investment is required. At that point, Donald’s next move will be crucial and Sunderland’s future trajectory will begin to become clear. Eventually, the silence will have to be broken.