Ricky Sbragia was given the permanent job at Sunderland on an 18-month contract yesterday having shown, in the words of the chairman, Niall Quinn, "coolness, intelligence and superb organisation" in the three weeks since Roy Keane's departure from the Wearside club. Sbragia's brief is to keep Sunderland in the Premier League. The contract is a vote of confidence in the 52-year-old Scot but its length is evidence that Sbragia has to justify his appointment as manager on a weekly basis. That should not faze Sbragia, as it has been his approach to the four games he has overseen since Keane left that has brought him his first managerial post.
"My main priority is moving up the Premier League table and ensuring we have unity and stability at the club," Sbragia said.
"In an amazing, tense Premier League this season, Ricky has been the coolest one around," Quinn added. "We have found him to be top-class. He has shown great intelligenceand understanding. It's a great opportunity for him."
The economic reality is that Sunderland must retain their top-flight status, and Sbragia knows that his performance will be reviewed at the end of the season. Quinn and the executive board have taken a gamble that the players' upbeat response toSbragia will continue now that his role has changed. It was that as much as any deficiencies in the three-dozen applicants that swayed matters.
Sunderland, who were fortunate that Blackburn's Jason Roberts missed an injury-time open goal on Friday, convened a board meeting yesterday morning. The leading shareholder, Ellis Short, was not present, but the United States-based businessman is fully aware of the contenders for the post and backed the board's choice.
Two points off relegation, Sunderland travel to Everton today. Goodison Park is where they lost 7-1 last season, a game that marked Sbragia's return. Having been a coach with the club in the 1990s, Sbragia left for Manchester United in 2002 to be the reserve-team coach and then moved on to work as first-team coach with Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers.
Keane recruited Sbragia from Bolton, although Sbragia joked on Friday that as he watched Everton pummel Sunderland last year he wanted to ring the Bolton manager, Gary Megson, and ask for his old job back.
Sbragia's first home game as full-time manager will be against Bolton in the FA Cup next Saturday.