Forget Will Still - Sunderland's ideal next manager is staring them in the face

The Black Cats are on the hunt for a new manager following Michael Beale's departure on Monday.
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Sixty-three days, 12 matches, a quagmire of discourse later, and we're back to square one. Buckle up, folks, it's the return of Dodds Ball! As you will no doubt be aware by now, Sunderland parted company with manager Michael Beale on Monday. His departure brings to an end a brief tenure that was as tumultuous as it was ineffective.

Across a dozen contests, Beale won exactly one third of his matches on Wearside and lost precisely half. The final nail in the coffin came last week, when back-to-back defeats against Huddersfield Town and Birmingham City convinced those in the boardroom of something that many supporters have been certain of for several weeks; this was never going to work.

At the time of writing, Sunderland sit just four points adrift of the Championship play-off places, but truthfully, that is more a reflection of the chaotic nature of the division than it is Beale's influence on their promotion hopes. By any conceivable metric - xG for, xG against, the good old fashioned eye test - the Black Cats have regressed in recent months, and whoever comes in next faces the considerable task of reversing a slump which began under Tony Mowbray, but that has been compounded under his successor.

In the immediacy, the job will fall to Mike Dodds, who has been named interim manager until the end of the campaign. This feels like an astute move. Not only did the coach prove himself admirably during his prior flirtation with the dugout earlier this season, impressing tactically and exhibiting a pleasing willingness to make swift in-game decisions, but it also affords Sunderland the luxury of seeking a permanent replacement in a summer market where, presumably, a greater selection of their primary targets will be more readily available.

As things stand, with the dust of Beale's exit yet to properly settle, the bookmakers have decided that Will Still is the most likely to arrive on Wearside at the end of the campaign. But will Will Still still be on Sunderland's radar given the compensation debacle that, according to several accounts, derailed their bid for him in December? Stade de Reims will still demand a payout for their highly-rated manager, and Will Still will still be very much under contract in France. The man is a tongue twister incarnate, and one that might prove to be too expensive for the Black Cats.

Instead, then, it is perhaps more realistic to expect Sunderland to move for a manager who is unemployed, much as Beale was prior to his appointment. To that end, there are a number of prospective names who catch the eye, but none more so than Steve Cooper.

The Welshman is still without a job following his departure from Nottingham Forest in December, and while he continues to be mentioned in relation to just about every semi-viable vacancy imaginable, at the time of writing, he has not been suitably tempted by any of them. But what a coup it would be for Sunderland if they could lure him back to the dugout.

Cooper is a man who knows the Championship better than most, and who understands what is required to wriggle free of its clammy grasp the hard way. He has realised promotion via the play-offs, and following his success as an England youth coach, he has decent experience of working with exactly the kind of promising talent on which the Black Cats have built a dressing room.

Of course, there is a chance that whoever is appointed in the summer might not have to worry about the Championship at all. Maybe Dodds will come in, go on a 13-match winning streak and take Sunderland up himself. In that case, disregard this whole article and just give him the bloody job. And the keys to the city.

But the point is that Cooper could also thrive in the Premier League if required. Ultimately, things would go awry for the 44-year-old at Forest, but there was a decent while when he and his side looked firmly at home in the top flight. Indeed, even upon his sacking, there were plenty associated with the City Ground who were sad to see him leave. Cooper, in short, is a man not only capable of taking Sunderland up, but of also keeping them there.

Perhaps the most telling factor to consider, however, is just how much the fan base seems to want him. After the abortive failure of Beale's reign, it is imperative that the board act to bring in a manager who supporters feel as if they can get behind from the very first whistle of the new campaign. Cooper would be a ceaselessly popular choice, one that embodies the apparent ambition of the club in its current guise, and who has the substance to impress beyond the constant use of high performance corporate jargon.

Some might argue that an appointment of Cooper's stature would be unrealistic for a club in Sunderland's current position, and those naysayers may well be right. But the Black Cats are a big club, and with the right person at the helm, there is no reason why they should have to traipse through the doldrums for much longer. Cooper could be the one.