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Premier League

Martin O'Neill and Mark Hughes top Sunderland list of targets


Sunderland have begun making contact with candidates to replace Steve Bruce as manager, with Martin O'Neill at the very top of their list.

Press Association Sport understands an initial approach was being made to the Irishman who, along with Mark Hughes, are the leading contenders for the vacancy created by Bruce's departure last night.

O'Neill has been out of football since leaving Aston Villa in acrimonious circumstances in August last year, while Hughes parted company with Fulham in June.

Sources close to both men have indicated they are interested in the post and bookmakers have installed the pair at the head of the field, with both having enjoyed favouritism during the last 24 hours in a fluctuating market.

However, it is understood O'Neill - who was being quoted as a 4/11 shot by William Hill this evening - enjoys the greater support with the people who matter at the Stadium of Light and is currently the preferred choice.

But despite hoping to make a swift appointment, chairman Ellis Short and his predecessor Niall Quinn - who has taken on an international development role since standing down - will not back themselves into a corner.

O'Neill would certainly be a popular choice with the fans, who have repeatedly cited his boyhood fondness for the club as a major factor in attracting him to Wearside, and he has topped the betting at some point whenever a vacancy has existed in recent years.

The fact that he, like Hughes, is currently out of work means there would be no need for lengthy and potentially costly negotiations over compensation, an obstacle which tends to suggest another popular choice with supporters, Everton's David Moyes, would be a non-starter.

Speculation has also thrown up the names of overseas candidates Carlos Queiroz and Ronald Koeman, but a domestic appointment is more likely.

The success of Sunderland's mission to land O'Neill could depend largely on the financial package the club can put together, not only for him and his staff, but for a January reshuffle of a squad which has underachieved this season to date.

Celtic boss Neil Lennon, who played under O'Neill at Parkhead and Leicester, has backed his former boss to make a return to the game.

"If he gets the job it would be brilliant to see him back in the game," Lennon said today.

"He has a penchant for lifting clubs. Sunderland is a huge club and I know that as a boy growing up it was his favourite team, so there might be an emotional tie there for him.

"But I think he is just ready to get back into the game and if he is offered the job, whether he takes it or not, I hope that if that is what he wants to do, we will see him back in the Premier League sooner rather than later."

Despite O'Neill's popularity with fans, Sunderland will be well aware that giving supporters what they want does not always work out.

Newcastle's appointment of Kevin Keegan for a second time ended in tears, while local hero Alan Shearer could not prevent them from being relegated from the top flight.

Alan Pardew has since built on the good work done by predecessor Chris Hughton, and enjoyed a 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light early this season.

But the Newcastle boss was still sorry to see Bruce go.

He said: "It's never nice, being a member of the LMA [League Managers' Association], to see one of my fellow managers lose his job. I wouldn't want that even though he was the biggest rival for us.

"I am very disappointed that he's gone. I hope he is looked on for the record he has had in his career, which is excellent.

"I wish him the very, very best of luck. We will have to see who the new manager is and where they go from here."

Whoever gets the job faces the task of turning around an expensively assembled squad which is nevertheless short on proven strikers and dispirited after a run of just two victories in 13 Premier League games his season.

That has left them 16th in the table, just two points clear of the relegation zone heading into Sunday's trip to Wolves.

Bruce's assistant Eric Black has been placed in temporary charge of team affairs.

However, the club have cancelled tomorrow's scheduled pre-match press conference and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that an appointment could be made before the game kicks off at Molineux.