MICK McCARTHY knows all about surviving the bad times at Sunderland. Appointed as Howard Wilkinson’s successor in 2003, he lost his first 11 games as Black Cats boss. Three years later, he was sacked as Sunderland careered out of the Premier League with what was then a record points low. As McCarthy can attest, Wearside woe is hardly a new phenomenon.

So for the current Ipswich Town boss to admit Chris Coleman is wrestling with problems far greater than the ones he was forced to endure more than a decade ago says much for the depth of Sunderland’s plight as they battle to avoid relegation to League One.

“It’s like he’s trying to turn around an oil tanker with a canoe paddle in his hand,” said McCarthy, in his own inimitable style. And, he might have added, the canoe paddle would probably be on loan and due to go back to its owner at the end of the season.

With every week that passes, Sunderland’s position gets starker. Saturday’s defeat, which was the 15th of the season, was hardly a surprise, following a pattern that has become all-too-familiar at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland started reasonably brightly, conceded a sloppy opening goal, collapsed entirely for a ten-minute spell as they let in another, and spent the rest of the game dominating possession but never threatening to do anything in the opposition’s box. It is effectively the story of their season.

Yet it is perhaps the biggest indictment of the position Sunderland have sunk to that it all felt so unremarkable. Has one of England’s biggest clubs, in a region that prides itself on its footballing passion, really come to this? Are things really so bad that the sight of a cobbled-together team full of youngsters, cast-offs and loan players, losing to an Ipswich side that did not have to get out of second gear, is now so commonplace that it is barely worthy of comment?

How has the backdrop of a half-empty stadium, populated by those remaining die-hards who simply refuse to give up the faith, become the norm? And amid such endemic decline, such all-encompassing, all-consuming decay, how on earth is Coleman supposed to flick a switch and make everything all right again? In short, and largely thanks to the disastrous decisions made by Short, he cannot.

“I’ve only been here two months, but I can already feel the drag of such a big club on the back of relegation, the chairman wants to sell, it’s a huge negative,” said Coleman, whose previous reluctance to use the failings of the past as mitigation for current struggles is being eroded by his side’s inability to turn things around.

“We’ll do our best not to get sucked down with all that. As big as this club is, when a club like this is going the wrong way, it feels very, very heavy.

“It’s up to me, the staff and the players to find a way from where we are. Thankfully, there are still loads of games left. Every game that goes by and we’re still in the bottom three, that tears another strip off you, but by hook or by crook, we’ve got to get away from it.”

As Coleman is learning though, changing the list of cast members is no guarantee of changing the narrative. Saturday was supposed to be a new start, but merely served up more of the same.

Coleman named all three of his deadline-day signings in his starting line-up, and all three did okay. Lee Camp might perhaps have been more decisive when Grant Ward delivered the cross that led to Adam Matthews’ own goal on the stroke of half-time, but the Cardiff loanee was generally much more composed than either Robbin Ruiter or Jason Steele have been this season.

Ovie Ejaria ran the game in the opening quarter-of-an-hour, and while his impact was much more sporadic in the second half, he was still one of the few Sunderland players constantly looking for the ball. Ashley Fletcher provided a focal point at the head of the home attack, and linked neatly with Ejaria and Joel Asoro in the first half in particular.

Yet for all that the trio could be reasonably happy with their individual performances, they quickly blended in to the general malaise that was festering around them. A decade of decline is hardly going to be arrested by the arrival of a 20-year-old who has barely kicked a ball in senior football.

“I’d say to some of the players, stop eking your way through 90 minutes, stop thinking you can get away with it, you absolutely can’t do that,” said Coleman, with commendable honesty. “If you come out, put yourself out and fail, that’s okay, fair enough, but at least put yourself out there from minute one.

“Don’t try to go under the radar. There’s no other way of doing it. Unless someone’s got a better idea, I’m happy to listen to it. But in my experience, I’ve never got anything from doing it half-heartedly. You go all the way in, or you go all the way out.”

Some Sunderland players are hiding at the minute, and that has to change. But Coleman also feels his players have to be smarter and more streetwise if they are to claw their way out of the bottom three. Sunderland should have had a penalty in the second half when George Honeyman’s cross struck Jonas Knudsen on the arm, and while referee Darren England erred when he failed to award a spot-kick, the home side’s players were hardly vociferous in their appeals.

“We’ve got to be a bit more street-smart in games,” said Coleman. “At the start with Wales, we weren’t very street-smart, we used to get the life bullied out of us by teams like Bulgaria and Croatia because we were too honest. They got better at that, and we’ve just to get that in place here and be more stubborn.”

There was nothing stubborn about the defending that led to Ipswich’s first goal, with Billy Jones failing to get tight to Joe Garner as the striker swivelled in the area before sweeping a low finish into the bottom corner.

Four days earlier, Coleman had been furious at his side’s concession of a second goal on the stroke of half-time at St Andrew’s, yet here we were again, watching Sunderland collapse at a critical stage of the game.

Bryan Oviedo was out of position as Callum Connolly sent Ward scampering past Lee Cattermole down the right, and while Freddie Sears was unable to make any contact in the six-yard box, he blocked Matthews’ view of the ball, which rebounded off the wing-back and into the net.

“Coming to a ground like this can play into the hands of the opposition,” said Sears. “You raise your game, the facilities are great and it’s a Premier League stadium. Their team is struggling, so it’s a nice place to come to play your football. There’s no hostility against you, nothing like that. As soon as we got the goals, it felt very comfortable.” 

Unless, of course, you were a Sunderland fan.