What to expect from Sunderland's manager search and where the early favourites stand
On Wednesday, Stewart Donald began the search for his second permanent Sunderland manager.
It is no exaggeration to say he has already reached an important moment in his tenure.
Between appointing a successor to Jack Ross and concluding takeover talk one way or another, he will plot the course not just for the rest of this season but beyond.
The identity of the next boss will tell us much about where the club is at, where it is going and how they plan to try and climb back towards the top tiers of the English game.
Donald for his part, told BBC Newcastle on Tuesday night that nothing had been ‘pre-done’, and that no immediate successor was lined up.
He also strenuously denied that the decision was in anyway related to ongoing investment talks.
So what are the key questions he will need to answer, and who could come into the frame?
We take a closer look….
How important is League One experience?
Though the timing of Ross’ departure, just hours before a game, came as something as a surprise, the moment of the season that Sunderland have rolled the dice perhaps does not.
Across the divisions, managerial changes are beginning to happen at pace.
It’s that stage of the season where enough games have been played to draw some conclusions, and enough remain to do something about it.
This is ultimately where Sunderland found themselves after the Lincoln defeat.
The performances and underlying numbers raised concerns, as did the fact that it was increasingly clear that Ross had lost the confidence of large sections of the support.
Sixth in the table, but four points off second and with a game in hand, an upturn in form would quickly move the Black Cats into automatic promotion contention.
It goes without saying, then, that whoever comes in will be expected to make an immediate impact on the pitch.
The indications are that this makes a good knowledge of the division, Sunderland’s squad and the teams they will be facing a significant advantage for any potential candidate.
Is this just about promotion, or the bigger picture?
There are merits to both sides of the argument.
One is that this is a difficult league that has swallowed up many big clubs in the past.
It makes little sense to look too far past this season and as such, the priority should be to land a candidate who has proven that they can land promotion.
The other argument is that Sunderland need to think deeper about their model, how long-term success and sustainability can be achieved through their recruitment and protecting the pathway into the senior squad for young players.
Achieving both is the golden ticket but it’s considerably easier said than done.
How important is style, and what best suits this Sunderland squad?
This is a particularly important question for Donald as he weighs up the main contenders.
Ross regularly faced criticism for the style of play, particularly in recent months, with many supporters believing his squad of players should be playing with greater control and attacking intent.
Sunderland are a side relatively well placed in the table and though they have much to improve, any new manager will be starting from a reasonable base.
The key for the owners is establishing how they believe can make the adjustments that will get the side into the top two.
So what style suits this side best?
They have players with excellent attacking pedigree, but that most have identified as lacking in athleticism when compared to some of the other sides near the top of the division.
So would a manager with a high-pressing or counter-attacking philosophy be able to make their method work?
One of the key factors for whoever lands the job is the vision they can convincingly sell to the owners for this group of players and how they can achieve consistent results.
So, where do the main contenders fit?
Stewart Donald has already confirmed that he will consider the former Barnsley coach Daniel Stendel.
He ticks many of the key boxes.
He knows the division and has succeeded in it. The main question mark would be how long it would take to implement his style and whether it neatly fits the current group of Sunderland players.
High up on the current list of bookmakers favourites are Paul Cook and Gareth Ainsworth.
Cook’s promotion record is excellent and his attacking system has drawn good performances from Max Power and Will Grigg in the past.
The question is whether he would be at all tempted to leave Wigan, a side currently struggling in the Championship but one that recruited some good players in the summer.
Ainsworth is thriving at Wycombe Wanderers but his future seems closely linked to an attempt by an American businessman to acquire the club.
The manager has been quite clear in stating to supporters who will vote on the deal just how important he deems it to be.
Some exceptional recruitment has seen his time evolve and they are consistently posting some of the best attacking numbers in League One this season. Their position is no fluke.
Out of work managers with a good EFL record include the likes of Phil Parkinson, Nigel Adkins and Gary Rowett.
Fundamentally, this decision was made to try and find a candidate who could deliver a quick upturn in performances and results.
To do that, Donald will have to discern the best style and method for these players.
On Tuesday night, he said: “It might take a short period to get through, but what I can tell you is my life will now become absorbed with interviewing people, going through the process and double-checking and treble-checking with people in the footballing world.
“I’m sure, as has already happened, we’ll have loads and loads of applicants and I’ll make sure we make it right.”
It’s worth remembering, too, that when he last started his search for a new manager, Ross wasn’t even in the equation to begin win.