SUNDERLAND are ready to offer Paul Heckingbottom more than four times his current wage in an attempt to lure him to the Stadium of Light.

The Black Cats’ search for Simon Grayson’s successor has reached a critical phase, with Barnsley boss Heckingbottom having emerged as the club’s clear first choice of candidate.

Martin Bain has been working his way through a shortlist of contenders, and has interviewed at least two potential managerial options in the last few days.

Bain met Ally McCoist to discuss his candidature, and the former Rangers boss is understood to have delivered an impressive interview.

McCoist continues to have his supporters amongst sections of the Stadium of Light hierarchy, but Bain is keen to speak to Heckingbottom, who led Barnsley to victory in both the Football League Trophy and League One play-off final last season.

That process will require a formal request to Barnsley, and Bain is expected to make contact with the Oakwell board within the next 24 hours in an attempt to secure permission to speak to Heckingbottom.

He will then have to persuade the 40-year-old to swap the relative security of life in South Yorkshire for the turbulence of the Stadium of Light, where Sunderland have gone through eight permanent managers in the last six years.

Heckingbottom turned down an opportunity to join Nottingham Forest at the start of the year because he was concerned at the potential for insecurity at the City Ground, but despite Sunderland’s financial problems, the Wearsiders are confident they can put together a financial package that will persuade the former Darlington, Hartlepool and Gateshead defender to return to the North-East.

Heckingbottom, who spent four years on Sunderland’s books as a trainee without making a single senior appearance, is one of the lowest-paid managers in the Championship, with his current contract understood to be worth around £100,000-a-year.

The Black Cats will offer more than four times that amount, with their contract offer also set to include a performance-related bonus structure that could see Heckingbottom receive significant payments for first keeping Sunderland in the Championship and then leading them back to the top-flight.

Heckingbottom is currently on a one-year rolling contract at Oakwell, so while Sunderland would have to pay compensation to take him to the Stadium of Light, the size of the payment would not be prohibitive. The Black Cats paid around £700,000 to Preston when they appointed Grayson in the summer.

Heckingbottom has risen through the coaching ranks at Barnsley, having initially been appointed as a coach with the club’s development squad after he retired from playing in 2011.

He was appointed as caretaker manager after Danny Wilson was sacked in 2015, and while he briefly returned to the coaching ranks after the appointment of Lee Johnson, he was offered a caretaker role again in 2016 when Johnson left to join Bristol City.

He impressed as a caretaker in the second half of last season, and was offered a permanent position in June. He has led Barnsley to 16th position in the Championship in the current campaign, and guided his current employers to a 3-0 win over Sunderland in August.

If Heckingbottom cannot be persuaded to move to Wearside, the Black Cats will almost certainly turn to McCoist.

The former Scotland international has been out of work since leaving Rangers in 2014, having led the Ibrox club to promotion from the bottom two tiers of Scottish football.

Whatever happens in the next few days, Robbie Stockdale will almost certainly be in caretaker charge of the Black Cats for Saturday’s home game with Millwall.