Relegated Sunderland are bracing themselves for a major summer overhaul – with Bournemouth leading the race to sign Jermain Defoe.
The 14-goal top scorer has a clause in his contract which allows him to leave Wearside on a free this summer in the event of relegation to the Championship.
Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Bournemouth sealed Sunderland’s Premier League fate and Defoe is expected to depart with a host of top flight clubs hoping to land the prolific striker on a free.
And the Echo understands the Cherries, managed by Eddie Howe, are leading the race to land the 34-year-old England international.
Howe is a big fan of Defoe, who has been one of the few highlights for Sunderland, and made his breakthrough on loan at Dean Court early in his career.
Several Sunderland players will be out of contract this summer including Victor Anichebe and Jan Kirchhoff while loan players Adnan Januzaj, Jason Denayer and Javier Manquillo will go back to their parent clubs plus there will be strong interest in Jordan Pickford and Lamine Kone.
It will mean a huge overhaul in the playing squad ahead of the Championship campaign getting underway in August, with Defoe among those set to leave.
And the striker has been told he would thrive on the south coast by Cherries defender and former teammate Adam Smith, who has already tried to persuade him to join Bournemouth.
Smith, a former Tottenham Hotspur teammate of Defoe, said: “I did have a word with him after the game, actually, but I can’t go into too much detail!
“Hopefully, he will come here next season.
“I think he would thrive in our team and, with all our creative players, he would get loads of chances.
“He has scored 14 goals this season for the team that is bottom of the Premier League so that shows what a great finisher and striker he is.
“For sure, he could score more than 14 goals in our team next season,” the right-back told the Bournemouth Daily Echo.
Defoe’s form won him an England recall, with the striker scoring at Wembley in the 2-0 win over Lithuania in March.
He hasn’t, though, scored for Sunderland since his brace in the 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace - going 10 games without a goal.
That won’t stop a queue of suitors lining up, with Bournemouth leading the chase, although there is strong interest from elsewhere including Crystal Palace, managed by former Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce.
Speaking in March, Cherries boss Howe would not be drawn on a potential move but talked up the 14-goal striker.
Howe said: “It is difficult to say (how many suitors Defoe will have if he becomes available) because it is all hypothetical, but I imagine there will be a lot of people interested in him.
“He is a player we respect but he is a Sunderland player at this present moment.”