Martin O’Neill was sacked as Sunderland manager after his side’s 1-0 home defeat by Manchester United left them teetering on the relegation precipice.
The defeat at the Stadium of Light, the result of a Titus Bramble own goal, left Sunderland just one point above the relegation zone and without a win in eight Premier League games.
Before Saturday’s match Sunderland chairman Ellis Short called for all involved with the club to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ but he decided to act with just seven games of the season remaining.
A club statement said: "Sunderland has parted company with manager Martin O’Neill this evening. The club would like to record its thanks to Martin and wish him well for the future. An announcement will be made in the coming days regarding a successor."
Former FC Twente manager Steve McClaren, out of work since resigning on February 26, emerged last night as the favourite to take over, although his history as Middlesbrough manager would make him an unpopular choice.
Roberto Di Matteo, sacked by Chelsea, and former QPR and Manchester City boss Mark Hughes will also be front runners to replace O’Neill, while Brighton manager Gus Poyet could also come into contention.
A run that yielded only three points in eight matches ultimately cost O’Neill, 61, his job after a little more than 15 months at the helm. Sunderland’s last victory came at Wigan on January 19, and with trips to European champions Chelsea and rivals Newcastle to come, ahead of bogey team Everton’s visit on April 20, things could get worse before they get better.
O’Neill’s £5million signing of striker Danny Graham from Swansea during the January window was also an unpopular move and the self-confessed Newcastle United fan has failed to score since his arrival.
Last week, top scorer Steven Fletcher and captain Lee Cattermole were both ruled out for the rest of the season through injury.
O’Neill, a Sunderland supporter as a boy, was a popular appointment when he signed a three-year deal in December 2011, taking over from Steve Bruce.
But he has been unable to deliver the consistency in performances the Sunderland board demanded, winning 22 times in 70 matches with 27 defeats. The Northern Irishman had never made any secret of his boyhood affection for the club and the chance to manage them fulfilled a long-held dream.
His start was just what Short was looking for as a run of seven victories in his first 10 league games raised great optimism before the revival ran out of steam at the end of his first season in charge.
Despite another miserable campaign this season, it had appeared Short intended to keep faith with his manager.
Writing in his programme notes ahead of yesterday’s game, Short said: "I can assure you that every person at the club is doing everything they can to ensure that the season ends on a positive note and, when the season is over, we can take stock of what happened.
"Right now, it is important for us all to be on the same side and get behind the team."
O’Neill was clearly not expecting to be sacked. At his post-match Press conference yesterday, he said: "There’s a real determination in the dressing room that we can do it."
Former England international Alan Shearer has described the timing of Sunderland’s decision to part company with manager Martin O’Neill as ‘bizarre.’
Speaking on BBC1′s ‘Match of the Day’, the former Newcastle striker and manager said: "It’s bizarre. They have gone down the route that Reading have (sacking Brian McDermott).
"I look at him in the last few weeks and normally he comes on telly, we see him upbeat, looking forward to things.
"To me he’s been down, he’s not been his usual, energetic self – whether he’s known that something is going on behind the scenes I don’t know.
"They are on a terrible run of form but it is the timing of it I find hard.
"I think he might have missed his right-hand man John Robertson, who for the first time hadn’t been with him at his side.
"For whatever reason didn’t choose to go to Sunderland like he’d been with all his other clubs with him so I think he has probably missed him as well."