WEST HAM are leading the race for Phil Bardsley - if Sunderland opt against resurrecting contract talks with the full-back.
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet insisted earlier this month that both Bardsley and Jack Colback would leave the club when their deals expire at the end of the season after the breakdown of negotiations with the pair.
The duo are the only members of the eight out-of-contract players at the Stadium of Light who Sunderland have approached to keep, yet both have rejected the offers put to them.
Bardsley, now Sunderland’s record appearance-maker in the Premier League, has not been looking to leave and is settled in the North East. But the sticking point in the negotiations is understood to have been the length of contract offered.
A host of top flight clubs, plus newly-promoted Burnley, are keeping tabs on Bardsley, yet the Echo understands that West Ham are in pole position to land the 28-year-old on a Bosman deal.
The Hammers would be able to match Bardsley’s current salary, while the former Manchester United man also offers a seasoned top flight player on a free transfer.
The sticking point could be whether Sunderland have a change of heart over Bardsley and make a fresh attempt to keep him on Wearside.
Should the Black Cats remain in the Premier League, that is far more likely, despite Poyet claiming three weeks ago that he had accepted the departures of Bardsley and Colback.
“To be honest, it doesn’t matter where we finish - I cannot see them staying at the club,” said Poyet.
“It would be too easy to make a decision based on where we are (Premier League or Championship) because it would be very unfair on the fans.”
Certainly, Colback has proved his worth over the last three games, with the midfielder playing a pivotal role in Sunderland’s seven point-haul which has taken them out of the bottom three.
But Sunderland are paying the price for their failure to tie down Colback to a new contract last summer.
Former director of football Roberto De Fanti offered Colback - one of the lowest earners at the Stadium of Light - a derisory pay rise and while Sunderland’s Premier League status has been so uncertain, the 24-year-old has rejected several advances from the club.
Newcastle United continue to be linked with a Bosman move for Colback and after senior Magpies sources had initially played down their interest in the Killingworth-born player, there is an indication now that he is a summer target for Alan Pardew.
But there is plenty of interest elsewhere in Colback too, with Everton and Hull among the Sunderland academy product’s long-term admirers.