TEN years ago on Saturday, Sunderland were celebrating a 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge over a Chelsea side that included Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Exactly a decade on, and they were losing 2-1 at home to MK Dons to complete a week that also featured defeats to Mansfield and Fleetwood. Let’s just say that life has certainly changed at the Stadium of Light.

It doesn’t really benefit anyone to constantly hark back to the past, but at the end of a week that has seen takeover speculation ratchet up amid talk of South American multi-millionaires and Swiss 22-year-olds boasting billion-pound trust funds, it is instructive to be reminded of just how far Sunderland have fallen on the watch of first Ellis Short and then Stewart Donald, and just how difficult any rebuilding job will be.

Saturday was just about as bad it gets, or at least it was as low as Sunderland have been since the previous weekend, which was arguably the lowest point in their history. Until the next one arrives. Every time you think the club has hit rock bottom, they contrive to plunge themselves even deeper, but losing to an MK Dons side that were without a League One away win since September 2019 takes some doing. Having lost to a Mansfield side that were without a win of any description all season seven days earlier, perhaps the Black Cats were just in the groove.

There are multiple reasons why the rot set in on Wearside, multiple actors who are culpable. The downward spiral began long before the current boardroom regime came into place, but having swept into the Stadium of Light pledging to restore Sunderland to former glories – the p***-take party stops here, remember – it is impossible to deny that Donald, Charlie Methven and their assorted associates have made things worse.

A degree of hollowing out was inevitable given the financial impact of dropping into the third tier, but Sunderland has been stripped back to a calamitous degree, to the extent that it is now just like any other club clamouring to try to scramble into the Championship. Bigger and better supported, undoubtedly. Steeped in history and glorious successes, without a doubt. But, fundamentally, no different to MK Dons, the artificially-created outfit that left Wearside with all three points at the weekend.

The vision and enterprise that was promised when Donald swapped Eastleigh for the North-East has long since vanished. The insurance man might have been happy to pose for the Netflix cameras in his Oxfordshire mansion, but he no longer wants to be seen at the Stadium of Light. Unlike Sunderland’s long-suffering supporters, he has the option of throwing the towel in.

To that extent, it can only be positive that he is stepping aside to allow Juan Sartori and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to assume majority ownership, although at this stage, there are still far more questions than answers when it comes to Sunderland’s future boardroom direction. Sartori has had plenty of opportunities to make a tangible difference since first becoming involved with the Black Cats more than two years ago, but chose to prioritise his political ambitions in Uruguay over his footballing investment on the banks of the Wear. Is that going to change? Or is this merely an example of shuffling the deckchairs while the Titanic plunges ever deeper?

If Sartori and Louis-Dreyfus complete their takeover in the next few weeks, one of their biggest early decisions will be over the future of manager Phil Parkinson. The Black Cats boss has been in position for over a year now, and having inherited a team that was sitting in sixth position after Jack Ross’ final game ended in a 2-0 defeat at Lincoln City, he finds himself leading one that is inhabiting exactly the same spot after 11 games of the current campaign.

Despite Saturday’s defeat, the Black Cats are still just three points off an automatic-promotion position, and four points off the top of the table, with a game in hand. But this season already feels like the last one, and the one before that, with Sunderland’s failings all too apparent but their manager either unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it.

When the EFL voted in a salary cap earlier this summer, Parkinson bemoaned the fact it would make Sunderland “just like any other League One club”. Thanks to his side’s results so far this season, the Black Cats boss is making a pretty decent fist of achieving that anyway.

Saturday’s latest defeat exposed many of the shortcomings that continue to hold the team back, with Sunderland’s lack of creativity and attacking imagination standing in stark contrast to the agility and enterprise of an MK Dons side that started the day just three places above the relegation zone.

Given the opposition’s struggles, why did Parkinson feel the need to change his side’s shape to try to negate MK Dons’ ability to pass out from the back? Sunderland were all over the place in the first half in particular, with Lynden Gooch alternating between right wing-back and right wing, and Jordan Willis finding himself pulled here, there and everywhere to try to cover the gaps.

“We knew MK Dons wanted to play out the back, and they often start with Richard Keogh,” said Parkinson. “We wanted to push Josh Scowen onto their deep-lying playmaker, and Lynden Gooch onto Dean Lewington. Then that pushes Jordan onto the wing-back to force them down that side when they had the ball, and to be fair, that was fine.” Or at least it was until MK Dons took the lead.

Sunderland’s central midfield was ineffective all game, with neither Scowen nor Max Power boasting the pace or creativity required to offer a threat in the final third. Power opened the scoring with a shot that took a hefty deflection off Warren O’Hora, but it is surely time to get Elliot Embleton into the team to at least try to provide a link between midfield and attack.

Then, there is Will Grigg, the deadline-day dud that continues to come up with increasingly remarkable ways not to score. If his first-half miss at the weekend was staggering – having broken beyond the MK Dons defence to reach Grant Leadbitter’s floated through ball, he produced an air kick and missed the ball completely – his second-half aberration was truly jaw-dropping as he failed to convert from one yard out after Gooch delivered the ball from the right.

“He knows (it was a bad miss),” said Parkinson. “He is the first one to hold his hand up in the dressing room because he knows those chances have to be made to count.”

Sunderland were behind by the time Grigg missed after the break, with Cameron Jerome having glanced home a header from a free-kick and Scott Fraser having converted from the spot after he had been fouled by Power.

Andrew Fisher made good late saves from Denver Hume and Gooch, but Sunderland did not do enough to justify getting back on level terms.

“There’s a lot of football to be played, and it doesn’t matter where you are now,” argued Gooch after the game. “It matters where you end up at the end of the season. You can’t read too much into it now. Of course you want to be in the top two for as long as you can and be in the promotion places, but you’ve just got to keep going.”