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. Mark Hughes, the former Fulham and Manchester City manager, 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 Martin O'Neill, formerly at Aston Villa.
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 the 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 the weekend's 2-1 reversal to lowly Wigan Athletic at the Stadium of Light.
It proved the straw that broke the camel's back for many fans, with Bruce subjected to sustained personal abuse from the stands in the aftermath of an injury-time winner for the visitors, a fact clearly not lost on Short. "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. Many felt the writing was on the wall when Niall Quinn, a strong boardroom ally of Bruce, lost his influence when replaced as chairman by Short two months ago.
Eric Black, Bruce's assistant, will take charge of Sunday's trip to Wolves, who like their visitors have amassed 11 points from 13 games this season.
In terms of potential successors, Hughes has emerged among the front-runners. There had been no contact between Sunderland and Hughes by late last night though there is no doubt that the vacant role is one that the former Manchester City manager would be interested in.
O'Neill, who resigned from his role at Aston Villa 16 months ago, has been linked with the Sunderland job on the last two occasions it became available.