SUNDERLAND are closing in on the appointment of their new manager, with Phil Parkinson and Gareth Ainsworth now firmly established as the two leading candidates for the role.

The Black Cats hierarchy have spent the last week undergoing a thorough recruitment process in the search for Jack Ross’ successor.

A number of candidates have been approached, as well as a handful of clubs currently employing managers that have been of interest, and Sunderland owner Stewart Donald is confident of having a new boss in place ahead of Saturday’s League One trip to Wycombe Wanderers.

A final decision is expected in the next 24 hours, with Donald set to make a formal offer to the club's preferred candidate in that time frame.

From the outset of their recruitment process, Sunderland have placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of previous experience in League One and a proven track record of winning promotion in the lower leagues.

Parkinson’s credentials are obvious, with the 51-year-old boasting more than 700 Football League matches and three promotions on his managerial CV. He led Colchester United out of League One in 2006, steered Bradford City to the Championship in 2013 and also guided Bolton Wanderers out of the third tier in 2017.

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He dealt with difficult financial situations at Bradford and Bolton, and has been out of work since leaving the University of Bolton Stadium amid a financial meltdown at the end of last season.

Ainsworth has achieved sustained success with Wycombe Wanderers despite having to operate with one of the smallest budgets in the Football League.

He guided his current employers to promotion from League Two in 2018, avoided relegation last season, and has led Wycombe to second position in the current League One table.

Wycombe’s board have indicated they will not stand in his way if he is offered the chance of taking over at Sunderland, and while the Black Cats would have to pay compensation to prise him from his current position, they would not be forced to hand over an exorbitant fee.

However, Ainsworth is also understood to be on a three-man shortlist for the managerial vacancy at Millwall - Adam Barrett and Gary Rowett are also under consideration - with the Championship club hoping to speak to all three contenders in the next 48 hours. 

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A number of other candidates have been considered, including Paul Cook, who has won promotion in the lower leagues with Chesterfield, Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic. However, his current employers have been resistant to allowing him to leave the DW Stadium given his importance to their current efforts to avoid relegation from the Championship.

Daniel Stendel, who won promotion from League One with Barnsley last season, has been interviewed by Sunderland’s recruitment team, but there are understood to be concerns about the fact he was only recently dismissed from Oakwell and might need some time to clear his mind.

Nigel Pearson is another figure whose candidature was given serious consideration, but the former Leicester City boss is believed to have been reluctant to drop down to League One. Sam Allardyce, another figure who was linked with the job in the immediate aftermath of Jack Ross’ dismissal, effectively ruled himself out of a drop to the third tier when he discussed the situation on talkSPORT earlier this month.

The likes of Roy Keane and Kevin Phillips have also been mentioned as possible candidates, but their lack of experience in League One – or in Phillips’ case, of frontline management in general – is likely to have counted against them.

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Phillips, who was also linked with a possible assistant manager’s role alongside Pearson, confirmed his interest in returning to Wearside in a radio interview with talkSPORT this morning, and also hinted that an appointment was close.

“We reached out and made contact,” said Phillips. “Over the last two seasons, when the job has come up, I’ve never really put myself out there. But I thought it was the right time to put myself in.

“We had a good chat. From what I hear, they could announce someone today. They want someone in charge quickly. They’ve got a big game on Saturday. I’d love to have a crack at it.”