SUNDERLAND will focus their search for a new manager on Martin O'Neill and Mark Hughes after sacking Steve Bruce yesterday.
The club believed that Bruce's reputation had been damaged beyond repair in the eyes of Sunderland supporters.
O'Neill appears to be the people's choice but there is also serious consideration being given to Hughes, who has done well at previous clubs on a limited budget.
Other names have been discussed, including Everton manager David Moyes and former England manager Steve McClaren, but O'Neill and Hughes would almost certainly have to turn the job down first.
Assistant manager Eric Black will look after first-team affairs until a new manager is appointed, and is expected to be in the dugout at Wolves on Sunday.
Bruce was sacked after chairman and owner Ellis Short decided he had to protect the business by removing the manager immediately, rather than give him another two games to show he could resurrect their season. Although a prominent section of the club's support turned against Bruce weeks ago, it became mass opposition after the 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic last weekend.
After four days of reflection, Short decided Bruce had to go late on Tuesday night, as the American feared the effect of falling attendances. Sunderland have won just twice this season, in sharp contrast to bitter local rivals Newcastle United, who are flying high in fourth.
Despite finishing in the top 10 for only the third time in more than 50 years last season, Bruce's side have won only three games at the Stadium of Light this year.
O'Neill has previously pushed all the right buttons on Wearside, reminiscing about his childhood in Northern Ireland listening to Sunderland games on the radio as a supporter.
That is in stark contrast to Bruce, a Geordie, who made no secret of his affection for Newcastle when he was growing up. O'Neill also has an outstanding CV and is desperate to get back into management after quitting Aston Villa in August last year.
One thing that may work against O'Neill is the amount of money he will want to rebuild the side. Short has had to cover losses of more than £25m in each of the last two years and had not planned to spend much, if anything, in January.
Hughes, on the other hand, has done well with limited resources at Blackburn and Fulham and is happy to work with the players he would inherit. He regards Sunderland as a bigger club than Fulham and believes success would give him greater funds in the long run.
Short said: "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.
"It is my job as chairman to act in the best interests of our football club at all times and I can assure everyone that this is not a decision that 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 during his time at Sunderland.
"I would like to personally place on record my thanks to him for his significant contribution to our football club.
"I would also like to thank our fans, who have endured a trying start to the season."
Bruce, who only signed a new three-year contract in February, is believed to have been shocked by the decision.
His mood at the training ground was far more buoyant than it had been at the start of the week, and the players were surprised to learn that a manager who retained their full support had been sacked.
The former Manchester United captain can at least console himself with a multi-million pound pay-off.