Sunderland position is O'Neill's to turn down

Mark Hughes second choice if Irishman decides to further delay return to dugout

The job of Sunderland manager is Martin O'Neill's to turn down with Mark Hughes, the other preferred candidate, forced to wait to discover whether the Northern Irishman sees the Stadium of Light as the platform on which to end his 16-month hiatus from football.

Less than 24 hours after parting company with Steve Bruce, the Wearside club, encouraged by positive noises coming from both individuals, have made contact with each man, and preliminary talks have taken place. However, it is the more experienced candidate to whom Ellis Short, Sunderland's owner, is ready to offer first refusal, after taking advice from Niall Quinn, the club's head of international development, who the billionaire Irish-American replaced as chairman in October.

O'Neill's potential return to management, following his sudden resignation from Aston Villa last August, is largely dependant on the amount of autonomy he will be granted by Short and the freedom to appoint his own coaching staff, allied to the level of budget he will have to invest, both in the January transfer window and beyond with the long-term aim of regularly challenging for Europe. Having afforded Bruce the thick end of £60m to spend on players in his fluctuating two-and-a-half year reign, assurances over O'Neill's latter concerns would not appear to be a major stumbling block, although privately Bruce had reservations regarding the amount of money that was to be put at his disposal had he remained in charge into next year.

If both criteria are acceptable to the 59-year-old, who was also the preferred candidate before Roy Keane took the job in 2006, there seems to be little else in the way to prevent his appointment. It is one which would be largely welcomed by Sunderland supporters, whose angry reaction towards Bruce in the wake of the damaging 2-1 home defeat by Wigan Athletic at the weekend helped to speed the departure of the 50-year-old, who had presided over just two victories this season.

O'Neill's at times uneasy relationship with Villa owner Randy Lerner, a business contemporary of Short, is seemingly not considered a major stumbling block by the Sunderland supremo, contrary to initial suggestions.

Beyond the two outstanding candidates, there has, understandably, been strong interest in the job, the first managerial vacancy in the Premier League since Hughes left Fulham in the summer. Carlos Queiroz, the former Manchester United assistant manager and Portugal coach currently in charge of the Iranian national side, has applied for the post made vacant after Short finally ran out of patience following a dismal run of just 21 points from a possible 81. Ronald Koeman, the 48-year-old manager of the Dutch side Feyenoord, is also believed to hold an interest in the role.

O'Neill has rebuffed interest from Championship sides West Ham United and his former club Leicester City in the past few months and should he opt to further delay his return to management, Hughes will be back in management just six months after leaving Craven Cottage.

In the meantime, Bruce's assistant Eric Black is preparing the side for Sunday's trip to fellow strugglers Wolverhampton Wanderers, though the affable Scot was spared the far-from-onerous task of publicly discussing his thoughts on the situation, after the club cancelled their regular pre-match press conference today.

As Bruce takes stock, with suggestions his will be a relatively short period out of the game to re-charge his batteries before looking for a return to management in the New Year, there was sympathy from Newcastle's manager Alan Pardew, who is perhaps best placed to understand the unique pressures of top-flight football management in the North-east.

"On a personal level, I feel for Steve," he said yesterday, his side's impressive start to the campaign having exacerbated the problems faced by their near neighbours.

Pardew added: "He's someone I know reasonably well and I have great sympathy for him losing his job. It's difficult when results aren't what you want and they weren't what Steve wanted. I know he was desperate to get another game but unfortunately he didn't get it."

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