The Favourite: Derek McInnes (5/4 - SkyBet)
Current Club: Aberdeen
Previous Clubs: St Johnstone, Bristol City
Honours: Scottish League Cup: 2013-14; Scottish First Division: 2008-09
Style of Play: McInnes' Aberdeen tend to line up in a 4-2-3-1, exploiting the pace and width that Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes offer. The intention is to cross the ball for target man Adam Rooney, who helps to bring others into play. Aberdeen typically look to take initiative and control the game in the opposition's half, and this attacking philosophy has certainly paid off - they scored 97 goals last season.
In tougher games, McInnes has experimented with an extra central defender or a midfield diamond to provide more solidity and protection. "He does a great job of taking into account the opposition's strengths while also implementing his own style to help him be successful." He is certainly not a manager afraid to make changes.
Transfer Policy: Resources are tight at Aberdeen; only Kenny McLean has been signed for a transfer fee. As a result, McInnes has built a squad of free agents and loan signings. He identifies players who can fulfill specific roles within the team, and knows what he wants from his squad. For example, in his first season at the club:
he signed Barry Robson and Willo Flood to bolster the midfield and help us both break up and start counter-attacks. In January that season he felt we were weak at right back and brought in Shay Logan; he didn't think we were clinical enough up front so brought in Adam Rooney who had been proven in Scotland at Inverness.
Established Scottish stars, such as McLean and Graeme Shinnie, have been supplemented by young loan players from top clubs, like Danny Ward from Liverpool (who starred at Huddersfield last season) and Ryan Christie from Celtic.
Previous Championship Experience: McInnes’ previous Championship experience is not one that he will look back on fondly. The Scot initially saved Bristol City from the drop after taking over from Keith Millen; The Robins were languishing at the bottom of the table with just one win from their opening 12 games. But an eight-match unbeaten run at the end of the season saw them survive with a game to spare; McInnes' 43 points from 34 games was the 15th highest total since his appointment.
However, the 2012-13 season did not go to plan. McInnes was sacked in January after winning just six of his 26 games. The Robins were bottom of the table, eight points adrift of safety with just 24 points, and the only team without a clean sheet at that stage. Furthermore, they had equaled a club-record run of seven successive defeats earlier in the season - McInnes was unable to take the club forward.
McInnes told Keys and Gray that: “there were constraints with financial fair play" and that "I knew the wage bill had to be halved by the start of the season and we were working towards that," so the situation is perhaps not as black and white as it may have seemed. Nonetheless, it was a "bitterly disappointing" experience.
Struggling in the Championship under financial constraints, albeit over four years ago, may go against him in the selection process, although he has bounced back strongly under similar circumstances in Scotland.
Pros: McInnes has been labelled the "most underrated manager in Scottish football." He has taken an underperforming Aberdeen side and moulded them into Scotland's second best club team. While The Dons' budget is favourable compared to other sides, the fact remains that he has had to work under financial constraints, which will stand him in good stead at Sunderland. Only Kenny McLean has been bought (£175K); the rest of the squad has been built with free agents and loan signings. To emphasise the disparity between the leading teams, Rangers spend double per player annually than The Dons do.
The way that McInnes has bounced back from his Bristol disappointment is impressive. He shows confidence in himself and his side; he is ambitious.
I think we have players now playing consistently well and a team of value. That pleases me. But there is still lots to do - still more we can do. One trophy isn’t enough - I want us to win another. I want to continually raise the standards. I still think we can win another cup, we can get to the group stages of the Europa League and put more value on the pitch. I want us to be in a position to strengthen if we do lose a player.
The way that McInnes has transformed Aberdeen is certainly not to be sniffed at, and it may play into Sunderland's hand. How much further can McInnes realistically go at Aberdeen, particularly with the re-emergence of Rangers, and Celtic's dominance and financial might? Niall McGinn, Ryan Jack and Peter Pawlett have already left the club, while Jonny Hayes is expected to depart in the coming weeks. Is a rebuild in the SPL more attractive than one in the Championship? Managing Sunderland would likely represent McInnes with the biggest opportunity of his career.
Cons: While his transformation of Aberdeen has been quite remarkable, it's hard not to look past the standard of Scottish football. Adam Rooney, for example, has scored 20 goals in three successive seasons for The Dons; whereas, he has managed just 39 goals in England in total. If he joins Sunderland, McInnes will be working with, and against, better players, and will certainly be faced with far better opposition. Will he be able to make the step up?
McInnes has also struggled against the big boys, beating Celtic just five times in 27 games. However, with the quality of sides in the Championship being more relative to one another compared to the SPL, this is unlikely to be a major issue.
Obtaining his services would also see Sunderland pay compensation, estimated to be in excess of £1M. Is Ellis Short prepared to cough up? McInnes is also reported to be seeking assurances about Sunderland's financial situation. With the departed David Moyes said to be dissatisfied by Short's lack of assurances, will this prove to be a stumbling block for his fellow Scot?
To read more on Derek McInnes, click here for Tom Atkinson's profile of the Aberdeen boss.
The Second Favourite: Simon Grayson (3/1 - SkyBet)
Current Club: Preston North End
Previous Clubs: Blackpool, Leeds United, Huddersfield Town
Honours: League One Play-Off Final 2014-15; League One Play-Off Final 2011-12; League One Play-Off Final 2006-07
Style of Play: The Preston defence has typically struggled under various managers. Therefore, when Grayson joined the club, his priority was to make North End difficult to break down and hard to beat. A solid backline, consisting of the likes of Alex Baptiste, Greg Cunningham and Tom Clarke has helped to lay the foundations for the club's success. Preston's record of 64 goals scored and 63 conceded points to a solid, safety first approach. Perhaps that's something that Sunderland need considering their defensive record in recent years.
Grayson has proved to be a pragmatic and largely cautious manager. Some fans have lamented his approach to games, particularly in the first half. Whether a more adventurous approach with the players and resources at his disposal was achievable is another debate. Either way, Grayson has certainly transformed the club's fortunes with consecutive 11th placed finishes.
Preston tend to line up in a narrow, compact 4-4-2 formation, favouring a more direct style of play. In attack, the likes of Aiden McGeady and Tom Barkhuizen played a big role, providing natural width and pace on the counter-attack. A combined 14 goals and 12 assists from 51 appearances in a less-than-adventerous side are impressive numbers.
Grayson has also demonstrated an ability to adapt to the opposition and the shape of a game, sometimes choosing to line up in a 5-3-2. Against Nottingham Forest in April, for example, he made a half time switch from 4-4-2 to 3-4-1-2 to help rescue a point.
Transfer Policy: Like McInnes at Aberdeen, Grayson is not blessed with a large budget to operate with. Of the ten permanent signings made last season, only three commanded a fee. But it's arguably worked in his favour. Grayson has build a squad of exciting, hungry and young talent.
One area in which he has excelled in terms of recruitment is signing young players from 'bigger' clubs. Daniel Johnson was signed from Aston Villa for just £50K, while Ben Pearson joined from Manchester United for a fee of £100K; both have impressed in the Preston midfield and will see the club make a significant profit should they depart Deepdale. Similarly, Callum Robinson was convinced to leave Villa and join Preston once his contract ended; ten goals and six assists have made him an instant success.
As more and more money is spent by the Premier League's biggest clubs, a host of promising youngsters will find themselves without the opportunity to break into the first team. It's an area that Sunderland should look to profit from, and with all due respect to Preston, Sunderland will represent a more attractive option in nine out of ten cases.
Grayson is also not afraid to look at football's lower levels. Goalkeeper Chris Maxwell and winger Tom Barkhuizen were signed from League One and Two respectively, with both establishing themselves as key members of the squad. Barkhuizen, signed for free from Morecambe, registered six goals and three assists in 17 games after joining in January.
Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle both joined from Irish side Dundalk on free transfers in the winter, with the former expected to be a key player next season, while Cork City goal machine Sean Maguire will join the club in July. Sunderland need to show imagination in the transfer market, and Grayson's record suggests that he is very capable in this regard.
Previous Championship Experience: Grayson is certainly experienced at this level of football, managing 263 games across his four clubs. He boasts a positive record, winning 89, drawing 87, and losing 87 games; it seems rather impressive considering the calibre of teams that he has managed.
In 2008, he led Blackpool to 19th in the Championship, their highest Football League finish since 1978. They were 16th in December 2008 when he departed for Leeds, in League One at the time, who he then guided into the Championship in 2010. With the club in the play-offs, a run of just three wins in eight saw Leeds finish in 7th place. He was sacked from Elland Road in February 2012, with Leeds three points outside of the play-offs in 10th. They would finish the season in 14th.
He again dropped down a level, earning promotion with Huddersfield, but was sacked after less than a year in the job after a run of 12 games without a win saw the Terriers drop to 18th. Successive 11th placed finishes with Preston have repaired any damage made to his reputation at Huddersfield, however.
Pros: Grayson has more than four times the Championship experience that McInnes does. With Sunderland entering relatively uncharted waters, his knowledge of the league may sway Short and Bain's decision in his favour.
Too often, Sunderland have looked fragmented; a collection of misfit individuals not pulling their weight, either collectively or individually. Fans of Preston "noticed a huge improvement immediately once Grayson took up his post and it was so refreshing to see PNE as a slick professional squad," while other fans have praised Grayson's influence on the club and his role in changing its culture:
Having watched events unfold at West Ham (Payet) and Chelsea (Costa) this week, it has made me take a look at this PNE team and really appreciate the current crop of players we have at the moment.
No matter what you think of certain players, I don't think we can accuse any player of shirking or not giving 100% at any time under Grayson (that I can think of). I personally haven't felt as close to a PNE team since the early 2000's, and you can tell they really care for the club and give absolutely everything for the manager and fans.
We should really enjoy this team while it lasts - I am genuinely excited for the rest of this season and beyond!
Sunderland need a manager who can unite both a playing squad and the fanbase. Might Simon Grayson be the man to do so?
Grayson also has a strong record of signing young players and players from lower-level leagues. With finances set to be tight at Sunderland, this ability to find a bargain is likely to make Grayson an attractive option.
And having never been relegated in his career, he should at least bring some much-needed stability to the Stadium of Light...
Cons: Grayson's style of play, while effective at Preston, may not be what Sunderland fans want, particularly after a season of awful football under David Moyes. However, despite financial constraints, he would likely be able to attract a higher level of player to allow him to play a more expansive game.
One thing that may go against Grayson is the fact that he has failed to take a club beyond a certain level in the Championship. Realistic or not, the club will be targeting a return to the Premier League as soon as possible. While Grayson did have Leeds in play-off contention in 2011 and 2012, and Preston last season, a run of poor form saw his sides fall away from the top six on each occasion. Does he have the ability to go to the next level?
Poor runs of form have plagued Grayson throughout his managerial career. Along with his experiences at Leeds, a run of 12 games without a win saw him sacked at Huddersfield, while one point from their last six games saw Preston drop from 8th to 11th. A Steve Bruce 14-game winless run was tolerated by Short in the Premier League; would he be as accepting in the Championship?
As with McInnes, Sunderland will have to pay Preston to obtain his services, and again this may prove to be a stumbling block.