O’Neill in line for hot seat as Black Cats boss first out the exit door
Just four days after insisting there was no need to panic over the managerial situation at Sunderland, Ellis Short has dispensed with the services of Steve Bruce two and a half years into the job.
Former Fulham and Manchester City manager Mark Hughes last night emerged as a strong front runner for a role that is expected to attract interest from a series of high-profile candidates, including former Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill.
Despite the recent reassurances from the club's billionaire owner Short, Bruce ultimately paid the price for a malaise which set in 10 months ago with the sudden departure of Darren Bent, one of two players on whom Bruce broke the club's transfer record following his appointment in June 2009.
Sunderland have struggled for goals since Bent's controversial £24m move to Villa in January, the unseemly exit of his successor Asamoah Gyan to the cash-rich United Arab Emirates at the start of this season merely exacerbating their problems in regularly finding the net.
A highest Premier League placing for a decade in May -- 10th -- failed to paper over the cracks in what has proved to be a chastening 2011 for Bruce, whose side have won at home just twice since New Year's Day, reaching their nadir with last weekend's 2-1 reversal to lowly Wigan at the Stadium of Light.
It proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back for many supporters, with Bruce subjected to sustained abuse from the stands in the aftermath of an injury-time winner for the visitors, a fact clearly not lost on Short.
It was an unedifying development, which for many was merely the natural conclusion in Tyneside-born Bruce's failure to win over a significant minority of supporters due to his Geordie roots.
"This has been a difficult time for everyone at Sunderland and is not a situation that any of us envisaged or expected to be in," Short said in a statement.
Many felt the writing was on the wall when Niall Quinn, a strong boardroom ally of Bruce, lost his position of influence when he was replaced as chairman by Short two months ago.
It was a move that left the 50-year-old exposed, and more directly answerable to Short, who had bank-rolled his 30 signings to the tune of around £50m. "It is my job as chairman to act in the best interests of our football club," Short added. "I can assure everyone that this is not a decision I have taken lightly.
"Sadly, results this season have simply not been good enough, and I feel the time is right to make a change. Steve has acted with honesty and integrity throughout, which is testament to the character and commitment he has shown at Sunderland.
"I'd like to personally place on record my thanks to him for his significant contribution to our football club over the past two and a half years."
Eric Black, Bruce's assistant, will take charge of Sunday's trip to Wolves, who, like their visitors, have amassed a modest 11 points from their first 13 games this season to leave them two points above the relegation zone.
In terms of potential successors, Hughes last night emerged among the front runners. The 48-year-old Welshman, a former team-mate of Bruce at Manchester United, has been out of work since leaving Craven Cottage in the summer, seemingly to take charge at Villa Park, a move which failed to materialise.
O'Neill, who resigned from his role at the Midlands club 16 months ago, has been linked with the Sunderland job on the last two occasions it has become available.
A Sunderland supporter as a youngster, sources suggest his at times uneasy relationship with Villa owner Randy Lerner, to whom Short has business links, could count against any attempts to forward his case, though the 59-year-old would be a popular appointment among Sunderland supporters.
Former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez remains out of work in a coaching capacity and while the Spaniard still resides in England, it remains to be seen whether he will pursue the vacancy. (© Independent News Service)