Sunderland face fight to convince managerial duo to take job

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Sunderland face a fight to convince contenders Paul Heckingbottom and Michael O’Neill to become their new manager.

The Black Cats remain insistent that they will not be rushed into a decision as they weigh up a crucial appointment and are confident that good progress has been made.

Barnsley head coach Paul Heckingbottom

Barnsley head coach Paul Heckingbottom

O’Neill and Heckingbottom remain the front-runners, with the latter expected to discuss the speculation at a press conference this morning.

Barnsley face Norwich City on Saturday afternoon.

Heckingbottom has been a front-runner from the earliest stages of the process and, while he is thought to be interested in the vacancy, Sunderland face a fight to convince him to leave his post at Oakwell should they decide to make an official approach.

Barnsley have their own off-field insecurity as a protracted takeover continues, but Heckingbottom would be reluctant to leave his boyhood club and town.

The Echo understands that, privately, he has expressed concerns over Sunderland’s January transfer plans and budget, with the Black Cats spending just over £1milllion in the summer window.

With their interest in O’Neill, Sunderland’s hand may be forced by the intervention of the Scottish Football Association, who made an offficial approach yesterday for the Northern Ireland boss.

Scotland have long admired O’Neill and he has been the favourite for the post since the departure of Gordon Strachan.

O’Neill lives in Edinburgh, having spent most of his playing career in the Scottish leagues. Assistants Jimmy Nicholl and Austin MacPhee are also based north of the border, with MacPhee assisting Craig Levein at Hearts on top of his international commitments.

The Irish FA have not yet responded to the Scots’ approach.

The Black Cats’ desire to sound out the highly-rated O’Neill has been one of the reasons for the protracted search that has now entered a third week.

Robbie Stockdale remains in charge until further notice and, at this stage, it remains a strong possibility that he will lead the team into the home game against Millwall on Saturday.

O’Neill would be set for a bumper pay rise whichever option he takes, with the Irish FA also keen to offer him a new, improved contract. His current deal runs up until 2020.

Sunderland would have to pay compensation to release him from that contract, but it is thought that they will not be deterred and have the financial legroom to make it happen.

O’Neill is considering his future and the competition for his signature leaves him in a strong negotiating position. He is thought to be open to talks with the Black Cats.

Sunderland face Millwall on Saturday as they look to avoid setting an English record for game at home without a win. Lions boss Neil Harris said: “We can use (Sunderland’s home form) to our advantage. The law of averages says it will change for them at some stage – we’ve just got to make sure it’s not Saturday.”