Gloom reigns at Stadium of Light as Sunderland's expensively assembled team fail to match quality of ground and support
In one corner of the room Ellis Short expressed confidence that Sunderland would finish in the Premier League's top 10 this season. In another David Miliband explained how the club planned to crack the untapped African commercial market and, just down the corridor, Craig Gardner talked of the team's new-found sense of optimism under Martin O'Neill's management.
It was a cool, cloudy, late-June morning by the river Wear. Sunderland had just announced a new partnership with Invest in Africa and the Texan financier, the former foreign secretary and the versatile midfielder could not have been more excited about the season ahead.
Nine months on Short and Miliband, Sunderland's chairman and vice chairman respectively, have become well practised at wearing inscrutable expressions in the Stadium of Light's directors' box. Miliband probably feels more comfortable talking about his brother Ed than the performances of the four players – Adam Johnson, Steven Fletcher, Danny Graham and Alfred N'Diaye – Short has bought for more than £30m during the last two transfer windows.
Without a win in their last seven games, Sunderland are perched four points above the relegation zone with their next five fixtures pitting them against Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle United, Everton and Aston Villa.
On Sunday they drew 1-1 at home against a Norwich City side reduced to 10 men for much of the game and, after equalising through a controversial penalty, they were booed off. It will not have been lost on Short that Norwich spent only £9m during the last two transfer windows and have a significantly smaller wage bill but are three points better off.
Tall, charming and commendably measured, Sunderland's owner remains creditably protective of the manager he appointed in December 2011. O'Neill, for his part, is impressed by Short's loyalty and understated sense of humour but appreciates that, after a season punctuated by persistent under-achievement, the owner is entitled to ask some tough questions – particularly as Short recently bankrolled an expensive break in Dubai for Sunderland's squad and management.
He may legitimately wonder why Danny Rose, the left-back O'Neill recruited from Tottenham on a season-long loan, looks poised to be Sunderland's player of the season rather than the £10m Johnson or the £12m Fletcher.
Short surely queries whether the absence of John Robertson from O'Neill's backroom has been a bigger miss than originally envisaged when the coach who had worked with the Northern Irishman at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa opted not to relocate to Wearside.
"It's hard to accept we're in this situation," said David Vaughan, the Sunderland midfielder. "When you look at the squad we have, we should not be in the position we're in. But we are and that is down to us players, coaching staff and everyone at the club. It is our fault, nobody else's and it's up to us to get ourselves out of this."
If O'Neill cannot be blamed for the lack of young players emerging through the Wearside ranks or inheriting a squad notably short on pace and creativity, Sunderland fans are concerned about his reluctance to rotate players ("We don't rotate like Manchester United but we need to give players a bit of a rest occasionally," O'Neill says), switch formations from his default 4-4-1-1 or drop under-achievers such as their former England winger, Johnson, who has started every league game when fit. There is a sense that the team lacks a coherent vision or philosophy.
While the long-term knee injuries suffered by Wes Brown and Lee Cattermole have hardly helped matters, such setbacks afflict most teams. Then there is the question of whether O'Neill is sufficiently receptive to experimentation.
For instance, maybe James McClean, the Republic of Ireland left-winger who has regressed alarmingly during a season beset by off-field troubles, could benefit from working with a sports psychologist.
Vaughan believes the players need to look at themselves. "We badly let ourselves down with our passing in the final third against Norwich," he said. "We rushed it and the quality just wasn't there. That's our own fault and something we need to work on.
"There is pressure on us. You do feel it before games. It's difficult to keep confidence high. We put in massive effort but run out of ideas. We need a bit more imagination, that's something we've been missing."
O'Neill maintains that he is in charge of "a top-six club" currently disguised by deceptively dowdy clothes but acknowledges there is "a lack of real, true ability" in a squad which looks ill-suited to its magnificently appointed, 49,000-capacity home. Right now this awkward disconnect is doing little to alter Sunderland's new-found status as England's reputed "depression capital".