Sir Alex Right-Hand Man In Frame At Sunderland!
Sunderland are exploring the option of René Meulensteen - Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant at Manchester United.
The Observer: Ellis Short finds himself confronted by football's version of the multiple choice exam question and seems unsure as to the correct answer. Sunderland's senior players have urged the club's owner to install a British manager, ideally with Premier League experience, as Paolo Di Canio's successor but Short's Italian director of football disagrees.
Roberto De Fanti believes another foreign coach is needed, preferably Gus Poyet, yet the Uruguayan left Brighton in acrimonious circumstances and his critics suggest he harbours even greater potential for volatility than Di Canio. The Poyet camp trumpet their man's multilingual skills, something key in a dressing room filled with more nationalities than any other Premier League club after 13 imports this summer.
Short is also exploring a third option: René Meulensteen. Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant at Manchester United is highly regarded, although his stint as Brondby's manager proved far from successful. If Meulensteen's 16-day reign before being sacked by Anzhi Makhachkala this summer was mainly about the Russian club's turbulent politics, the Dutchman appears a far riskier option than Steve McClaren, say.
While there has been contact between Sunderland's board and McClaren's representatives, Short seems strangely cool on the once much-vaunted United assistant coach who went on to lift the League Cup and reach the Uefa Cup final with Middlesbrough before winning the Dutch title at Twente. There were notable lows – England, Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest – but McClaren fits Sunderland's desire for a tracksuit manager keen on passing football and willing to cede considerable autonomy over recruitment to De Fanti.
Not that radical choices are necessarily off limits. Might Short ditch the philosophy of playing exciting attacking football from the back that Di Canio was expressly hired to introduce and call Tony Pulis? Or could he gamble on a bright young Championship manager? Sean Dyche, known as "the Ginger Mourinho" at high-flying Burnley, is rumoured to be on the shortlist.
Then there is the man in possession, the caretaker, Kevin Ball. He covets the job. A former Sunderland midfielder who has won plaudits as a firm but fair development coach, Ball possesses every coaching qualification going, knows the club inside out and, at 49, feels he is the perfect age. He will use Sunday's game against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light – the first of six tough home fixtures before Christmas – as an audition.
Already Ball has come up with a bright idea; should he be appointed all players will be issued with a copy of a book entitled "The Black Cats' Bible" before being regularly tested on its contents. The volume will recount Sunderland's once glorious history, detail key facts about north-east England and spell out how professionals are expected to behave in assorted situations.
It all leaves Short with quite a dilemma. As he ponders which box to tick, the American financier may, deep down, wonder if Ondrej Celustka, Sunderland's Czech right-back on loan from Turkey's Trabzonspor, was right when, on Friday, he suggested Di Canio had been sacked prematurely.
There is an simplistic, rather lazy, narrative surrounding the Italian's exit. This interpretation suits not only those senior professionals who ousted him but a board influenced by player power and a media happy to lap up the headline-friendly cautionary tale of a dictatorial egotist self-destructing in public.
Di Canio clearly made some bad mistakes – criticising his players in the press, exposing his insecurities by talking too much – but there are backroom Sunderland employees who do not entirely buy into all the talk of "systematic bullying" and, privately, speak highly of a man whose most vehement critics acknowledge as a stellar coach blessed with a streak of "brilliance".
Di Canio's advocates blame "old guard" players for his downfall but believe De Fanti, a former agent, also bears responsibility after ignoring Di Canio's request for British signings and imposing those 13 recent imports – five with previous Premier League experience – on him. Small wonder Sunderland have one point from five games.
Before instructing Di Canio to overhaul off-field discipline, the board were naive not to realise he would approach the task with messianic zeal. After knowingly hiring a human missile they failed to appreciate the former Swindon manager required precision guidance. Di Canio deserves another chance, probably at Championship level – which, unless Short ticks the right box, is where Sunderland are heading.
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