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Hughes in frame after Sunderland dismiss Bruce

Manager's reign ends after two and a half years but malaise set in 10 months ago when sale of Darren Bent left team short of goals

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 to be the straw that broke the camel's back for many supporters, 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, 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 simply 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."

Eric Black, Bruce's assistant, will take charge of Sunday's trip to Wolves, who have also amassed a modest 11 points from their first 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.

Hughes has an understanding of the scale of the job on Wearside, the history of the club and the level of expectation. He would be a fit because of the size of the task he accomplished at City. His work at Blackburn Rovers, a struggling Premier League side when he joined and led them to the top six, will also count in his favour with Short.

Though Hughes was at Fulham for only one season, a two-year period of time which has taken him in and out of the game since leaving City will have quickened his desire for a substantial longer-term role to rebuild his career.

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 the Irishman's case, though the 59-year-old would be a popular appointment among Sunderland supporters.

Bruce's demise: Where it all went wrong

Sunderland's last five games:

Saturday Sunderland 1–2 Wigan

19 Nov Sunderland 0–0 Fulham

5 Nov Man Utd 1–0 Sunderland

29 Oct Sunderland 2–2 Aston Villa

22 Oct Bolton 0–2 Sunderland

Bruce's summer signings of woe:

Nicklas Bendtner, loan Scored two goals in nine games.

Connor Wickham, £8.1m Has found the net just once – in last month's draw with Aston Villa.

Wes Brown, £1m His mistake on Saturday handed Wigan a last-minute winner.

Ahmed Elmohamady, £2m One goal and one assist from 11 games.

John O'Shea, undisclosed Injuries in pre-season hampered his ability to settle at the club.

Ji Dong-won, £2m One goal in 11.

Favourites to take over:

Martin O'Neill 1/2

Rafael Benitez 7/1

Mark Hughes 10/1

Bob Bradley, Lee Clark 14/1

Dave Jones, Steve McClaren, Carlo Ancelotti, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Stuart Pearce 16/1

Alan Curbishley, Sean O'Driscoll, Gareth Southgate 20/1.

Winner of the sack race in each of the last five seasons:

7 Dec 2010 Chris Hughton (Newcastle United)

24 Nov 2009 Paul Hart (Portsmouth)

25 Oct 2008 Juande Ramos (Tottenham Hotspur)

20 Sept 2007 Jose Mourinho (Chelsea)

13 Nov 2006 Iain Dowie (Charlton Athletic)