SUNDERLAND today sacked manager Mick McCarthy.
Assistant academy manager and club legend Kevin Ball has been appointed caretaker boss until the end of the season.
The fate of McCarthy's assistant, Ian Evans, has yet to be resolved.
McCarthy has paid the price for a colossally embarrassing Premiership campaign in which only two of 28 games were won – none at the Stadium of Light.
McCarthy, who took charge in March 2003, has lost 31 of his 37 matches in the top flight and the only surprise about his sacking has been its timing.
Chairman Bob Murray said: "As chairman, I take responsibility for what has proven to be an unsuccessful and heartbreaking season, despite the best intentions, efforts and expectations of everyone at the club.
"I feel deeply sorry that the excitement, optimism and aspirations of all Sunderland fans looking forward to a return to the Premier League have been rewarded in this way and I apologise for this.
"It is especially tough on supporters who have turned out in numbers week in, week out, despite seeing so little to raise their spirits.
"It is hard to see such loyalty unrewarded and I am sorry that performances and results have not mirrored the tremendous level of support that the club has been given.
"The club did not return to the Premiership just to make up the numbers, and while we fully expected it to be a tough first season back, none of us expected us to be in the position we are in today.
"I would like to thank Mick McCarthy for his efforts for the club while at Sunderland and wish him and his family the best for the future.
"Looking ahead, we will be taking our time to appoint a successor for what will be another very important season in 2006."
McCarthy could not have complained had he been sacked any time from September onwards – the point where the first five games of the Premiership were lost.
But having survived to this stage without ever losing the players'support during a difficult season, it seems odd to have given him the bullet when thoughts were already turning to next season.
Mick McCarthy was able to create a team capable of winning the Championship, and whoever becomes his successor long-term will be given that job as his first task.
Kevin Ball has 10 games to stake his claims for the job permanently.
How the drama unfolded
MICK McCARTHY was told at 10am today that his reign as Sunderland manager was over.
The Irishman arrived at the Academy of Light for a normal working today preparing to train.
But he was called to the Stadium of Light to meet chairman Bob Murray and vice-chairman John Fickling to be given the news that his time was up.
His first act upon receiving the news was to return to meet his players, the men who ultimately have not been good enough for the Premiership.
Murray then released a statement apologising to fans for the season's failings.
A friend of McCarthy said: "We are surprised by the timing because Sunderland will now have to pay Mick up on his Premiership contract.
"We've obviously known there was uncertainty because of results, but there was a feeling that the summer might have been a watershed, because Mick's salary would have reduced by
50 per cent upon relegation.
"He went straight to speak with the players after being told the news by Bob and John."
McCarthy could not be contacted this morning for comment.
High hopes end in utter despair
Mick McCarthy's appointment as Sunderland manager was welcomed after the disastrous reign of Howard Wilkinson. But the following three years were to prove a rollercoaster of highs and lows.
Tuesday, October 8, 2002.
Peter Reid is sacked. David O'Leary emerges as early favourite, but McCarthy's name is also linked to the vacant seat, given the squad's high proportion of Irish internationals such as Niall Quinn and Jason McAteer.
Wednesday, October 9, 2002.
"Not Yer Man!" The Echo exclusively rules McCarthy OUT of the race.
Thursday, October 10, 2002.
Former Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson is unveiled as manager.
Tuesday, March 11, 2003.
Wilkinson and deputy Steve Cotterill sacked after five disastrous months in charge.
Wednesday, March 12, 2003.
McCarthy is officially unveiled as Sunderland's new boss.
Saturday, March 15, 2003.
McCarthy's first game in charge ends in a 2-0 home defeat to Bolton, marking Sunderland's worst ever losing streak.
Saturday, April 12, 2003.
Sunderland are officially relegated after four seasons back in the top flight after a 2-0 defeat away at Birmingham City.
Sunday, May 11, 2003.
Sunderland finish the season with the lowest ever points total in Premiership history – 19 – after losing 4-0 at home to Arsenal on the closing day of the season. The have lost all nine games under McCarthy.
Sunday, August 10, 2003.
Life in the First Division proves no more appealing as Sunderland launch their promotion campaign with a 2-0 reverse away to Nottingham Forest.
Saturday, August 16, 2003.
Defeat by a goal at home to Milwall is Sunderland's 17th consecutive loss and leaves the club just one short of the all-time league record.
Saturday, August 23, 2003.
Sunderland finally break their losing streak with a 2-0 win at Preston.
Tuesday, May 4, 2004.
A 1-0 win at champions Norwich secures Sunderland a play-off place.
Monday, May 17, 2004.
Sunderland are leading Crystal Palace 4-3 on aggregate in the play-off semi-final second leg when a blatant Neil Shepperley foul on Mart Poom allows the Eagles to equalise. Sunderland lose 5-4 on penalties.
Saturday, April 23, 2005.
Goals from Steve Caldwell and Marcus Stewart secure promotion at the second time of asking with a 2-1 Stadium of Light win over Leicester City.
Friday, April 29, 2005.
Sunderland clinch the new Championship title with a 2-1 win away to West Ham.
Sunday, May 8, 2005.
Sunderland finish the season with 94 points, seven clear of runners-up Wigan and 21 ahead of West Ham in sixth.
Monday, May 9, 2005.
Thousands throng the streets of Sunderland as the Black Cats are given a civic reception and victory parade by the city.
Saturday, August 13, 2005.
Promotion celebrations are short-lived as Sunderland go down 3-0 at home to Charlton on the opening day of the season.
Saturday, September 17, 2005.
Sunderland claim their first point with a 1-1 home draw with West Brom.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005.
The Black Cats' first win of the season is a 1-0 FA Cup second round defeat of Cheltenham.
Sunday, September 25, 2005.
Sunderland beat Middlesbrough 2-0 at the Riverside, McCarthy's first Premiership victory.
Saturday, January 21, 2006.
A 1-0 win at West Brom is only Sunderland's second league victory of the season.
Saturday, January 28, 2006.
Sunderland lose 2-1 to Division 1 high-fliers Brentford in the FA Cup fourth round.
Monday, March 6, 2006.
McCarthy is sacked following a 2-1 defeat away to Manchester City. Sunderland are rock bottom, have taken just ten points from 28 top flight games, won only twice, scored 18 and conceded 49. They are still without a home win. By comparison, fellow Premiership new boys West Ham and Wigan have 42 and 40 points respectively.