NIALL QUINN hailed Mick McCarthy as the perfect replacement for Howard Wilkinson last night and backed his former Republic of Ireland coach to revive Sunderland's fading survival hopes.

As McCarthy steeled himself for the task of masterminding what would be arguably the most remarkable escape act in Premiership history, Quinn gave the Black Cats' manager to be a glowing reference and insisted he would make an instant impact on the Sunderland dressing room.

McCarthy, 44, is a popular choice among Sunderland players, many of whom - including Kevin Kilbane, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb - played under him when he was Ireland boss.

Quinn, whose decision to move back across the Irish Sea shortly to pursue a career in horse racing precluded him from becoming part of McCarthy's backroom staff, believes the former Millwall manager could confound the people who have written off Sunderland as relegation fodder.

He said: "I know the public would back Mick if he were to get the job and then Sunderland would produce results in the next few weeks, you just watch.

"Bookies say they can't stay up, but he would give them a chance if he were appointed.

"Sunderland need someone to lift them, and Mick would bring a spark back to the players within his first few weeks.

"In the long term, he'd do everything he could to get the club into a situation where the good times would return. No one would be happier than me if this were to be the case.

"If Mick were appointed, he would get the immediate respect of the players.

"You won't get mind games with him. He's a hard-working man and he leads from the heart.

"When he took the job with the Republic, he didn't hang around thinking about the past; Mick was always thinking of the future, and his pride would tell him he could keep the club up if he were given the opportunity.

"I can picture the type of team talk he would give and how he would deal with the media. He would say: 'I really want to stay up, I don't want to think any further than this season.'"

Sunderland captain Michael Gray last night accepted he and his teammates had to take a significant share of the blame for Monday's sudden sacking of Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill.

Gray, Sunderland's longest-serving player who missed only three of the Premiership matches during Wilkinson's ill-fated tenure, hopes he can now inspire his junior colleagues during the final two months of the season.

The former England defender said: "As players, we've got to look at ourselves because we're the ones who go out there and try to get a result.

"We haven't been doing that. Managers' reputations are based on results and obviously we haven't been getting them, which has been disappointing.

"It's important for me and other experienced players to set an example in a situation like this.

"If we can remain positive, then I'm sure the younger players will follow. We've got to be professional.

"We've got to remain focused now. We've got nine games left and we all want to stay in the Premiership.

"All we can do is get on with the job. We spoke about the situation but then we went out, trained hard with Kevin Ball and Jocky Scott, and just got on with it.

"Hopefully, the new manager will come in and give us a lift and we can get out of trouble. He has nine games to do it and you never know.

"We've got nine really important games ahead of us - nine FA Cup finals, if you like - and we have to be 100 per cent focused on the Bolton game.

"We've got tough games coming up, but they're games we know that we can win and we want to fight all the way."

Ball, who only joined the Sunderland coaching staff four weeks ago, is refusing to accept what looks increasingly like an inevitable relegation.

He said: "I firmly believe we can stay up. I've experienced ups and downs, and I still feel we can get out of it.

"We'd have to put together an unbelievable run, but it's not too late."

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