Sunderland surrendered their FA Cup involvement in the meekest possible fashion against Bolton Wanderers, but can it also be a watershed moment for a better future?
Every man, so they say, has his breaking point. Now it seems that many in the Sunderland squad have discovered Martin O'Neill's.
Us Sunderland fans do not have the luxury to be bad losers, sadly. We learn from a depressingly young age that if we allow ourselves to hate losing, then we are essentially condemning ourselves to hating life. That lesson is thrust upon us from our football club with a seeming savage glee.
Despite that, however, the FA Cup replay defeat to Bolton Wanderers really bothered me. In fact, it bothered me even more than the League Cup defeat to Middlesbrough back in October. It wasn't the losing. It wasn't even the lower league opposition.
It was just the sense that an opportunity had been blown. In fact, it was barely even an opportunity. It was merely a whiff of one. A whisper on the wind. That was all that was needed to make the players go scurrying in search of a white flag. It represented a damning indictment of what these players believe Sunderland to be worth.
I am not going to go down the whole 'special club' route here. Clearly, against the vast backdrop of the wider football world, no club is intrinsically special. Only an idiot would think otherwise.
But it is certainly an important club to us. You know, the thousands of people who made a 700-mile round trip to Southampton to support their struggling side three days before Christmas. The further thousands who travelled over to Bolton for the original tie because they wanted to believe it could be their year. The tens of thousands who pour into the Stadium of Light every other week on nothing more than a wing and prayer and a genuine passion for their club. The 4,852 who will be making the trip to Wigan this very weekend.
Perhaps I am being overly sensitive, dramatic, or both, but the message that the Bolton performance sent out from the players was that those people are not worth going the extra mile for. Sunderland were not outplayed, overpowered, or beaten for quality. They simply did not want it enough. They were not hungry enough to win.
For all the apologies and declarations of remorse since the game from perpetual losers and hangers-on such as Phil Bardsley, that is the bottom line, and going by Martin O'Neill's post-match comments, it appears he has finally reached that part of the paragraph.
Professional players should produce a good game be it 100 people or 100,000 people watching them. I'm disappointed that we couldn't get through for their sake.
We have to produce consistency. I think we should demand this. We have to learn to play four or five games well in a row, and if we're unable to do that with our present team then we have to look at changing the team.
This is a big club and we shouldn't have to be waiting 40 years for a trophy
O'Neill is entirely correct in what he says and we can be reassured that there is a manager at the club that will no longer allow people to sell the club short because, in all honesty, it has been going on for far too long.
We can also be assured that O'Neill knows what must be done. Sunderland have a lot of good players. I have always maintained that. On their day they are capable of competing with, and beating, absolutely anything. That has been proven time and time again.
Sadly, they have also proven time and time again that they are fundamentally incapable of achieving any level of consistency, and if there is one hallmark of genuine top quality then it is consistency. If O'Neill's unusually candid comments are to be taken at face value, and there is every reason to suggest that they should, then it can be safely assumed that he has arrived at a final and damning conclusion that too many of the players he inherited are simply not good enough.
And that, frankly, is music to my ears. I don't care how big it may be, no club has the right to expect good times. At Sunderland, however, we have been beaten and battered and bruised into a point of total submission where by expecting grim times has become ingrained into almost every facet of the club. Settling for second rate has become Sunderland's first nature.
At the moment all O'Neill has offered are words, and we have had far too many of those over the years. This is perhaps the first time they have been uttered in our general direction by a man with enough pedigree to make them count, however.
But somebody must make them count sooner or later. Because, whilst we are in no way ‘special' or entitled in the least to taste success, the supporters of this club deserve considerably better than the slop that was served up against Bolton and it has become much too great a part of the regular diet for much too long a period of time.