What is the issue that has been gripping many Sunderland supporters this week?
Yes, after the sound beating at Manchester City, a good many are calculating the extent to which the players must raise their game if they are to beat Newcastle United a week on Sunday. With internationals looming, there is also some pride in the involvement of a number of our players along with even more concern that they all come back in one piece.
- Sunderland's new partners enjoy roller-coaster existence
And then there's Alan Wallace and his flags.
Alan does not play for Sunderland though, at 43, must remember wishing many times when younger that he was good enough. Born and bred in the city, he has followed his team since early childhood. He readily owns up to the description "football daft". And he is the landlord of the Fort, a pub close to the ground and visited each matchday by scores of fans with countless more passing by.
In common with thousands of like-minded souls, he has experienced more heartbreak than joy over the years, only promotions and two seventh top-flight finishes under Peter Reid mitigating the absence of major trophies and, as the down side of promotions, the relegations that preceded them.
But it is a fair bet that the letter from Sunderland AFC brought him nearly as much disappointment as the failings on the field. In cold bureaucratic tones, the club he loves ordered him to remove flags bought from the official club shop and displayed in the windows of his pub.
It went further:
The use of SAFC products in your establishment implies a misleading affiliation between your establishment and SAFC. Please note you have 14 days from the date of this letter to cease and desist in all use of the crest and the products. If such is not complied with within this time, then SAFC reserves its rights to take further action, without further notice, in order to protect our intellectual property.
The Fort is stuffed with Sunderland memorabilia and, perhaps mischievously, Alan asked when interviewed by the Sunderland Echo if the letter meant he was expected to remove Sunderland-related tattoos from parts of his body visible to customers.
In taking Alan's side in this wretched little saga, I am not seeking to undermine the hard-headed commercial outlook football clubs must these days adopt.
The corporate nature of top-class football reaches a great deal farther than many of us would like, but the modern game cannot do without it. Take away the money from merchandise sales, television rights and sponsorship and Sunderland supporters would not be watching Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher at the Stadium of Light; indeed, they might not be watching Premier League football at all.
But what is missing from the club's approach - one it has so far seemed too embarrassed to defend - is a sense of proportion.
The letter-writer's suggestion of an implied "misleading affiliation" between club and pub is self-evidently absurd but it is also open to debate whether Alan is profiting as a trader from his proud display of the flags. Is his gesture really any more than that of a proud fan using prominent decoration to reflect the passionate allegiance of most of those frequenting the premises?
He would certainly stand to gain if he screened foreign streams of Sunderland games, depriving the club of money at the ticket office (a matter of such concern that Niall Quinn, when chairman, used strong and arguably unwise language to criticise those fans who took advantage). But he does not; on Alan's own account, his pub is alone in the surrounding area in not doing so.
My suspicion is that the club's silence on the affair is indicative of distinct feelings of regret that a policy which may well have proper application has been misused in a heavy-handed fashion to threaten a friendly neighbour.
The response from perfectly intelligent supporters has been overwhelmingly hostile to the club's actions. A friend with half a century of support, home and away, under his belt may be exaggerating when he says it is just the sort of episode that could kill his continued interest in the top-flight game; his reaction shows, all the same, a deep anger shared by others.
Perhaps Quinn needs to return to bash heads together. As things stand, it is tempting to mutter crossly about sledgehammers and nuts or, indeed, to recall a thundering Times editorial from the 1960s that condemned a jail sentence on Mick Jagger for some relatively trivial drug offence by asking whether it was necessary to break a butterfly on the wheel.