Closing time. Last call. At least that’s what Sunderland felt to be the case regarding their elongated search for a new head coach.

After over 100 days, Sunderland were finally poised to draw a close to this latest saga and begin a new chapter in the club’s history; the chapter of Will Still. Unfortunately for Sunderland, it’s a chapter which never made it beyond the prologue after negotiations between the club and Still appear to have fallen through, despite an agreement being made in principle.

Sources suggest Sunderland’s agreement was in place as early as last weekend, with all that was left to do was cross the ‘T’ and dot the ‘I’s.’ Yet no sooner had the contract rolled out of the printer, Still was having second thoughts, with suggestions from the Belgian’s camp relaying concerns over the club’s investment strategy as well as the make-up of his backroom staff. And while the absolute truth may lie somewhere in the middle of both standpoints, it’s the assumption of Still’s concerns which will ring loudest as the dust settles on what has been a rather ‘clunky’ pursuit of happiness for Sunderland.

Still’s concerns strike a similar chord to those of Alex Neil, Tony Mowbray, Michael Beale and even Mike Dodds, who have sat in the chair he now looks to have turned down – as well as former players such as Lynden Gooch – with regards the club’s recruitment and investment policy and the need for some adjustment. There is an age-old saying about smoke and fire and, currently, it feels like it is billowing from the Academy of Light.

Irrespective of the finer intricacies of Sunderland’s move for Still, the fact they look as though they are going to come up short with their longstanding target is another significant blow for the club and will do little to repair the fractured trust of the past six months.

Still has long since stated his desire to one day coach in England and that prospect looked to be taking him to Sunderland. The 31-year-old was a prime candidate in December before the complexities of a move became impractical – the biggest stumbling block appearing to be Still being in place with Stade de Reims and the compensation package that may have required. When that stumbling block was removed at the beginning of May, the cards suddenly fell back in place for Sunderland.

To get there, though, Sunderland have had to progress with their search elsewhere with over a dozen candidates understood to have been considered since Beale’s exit in February. At that point, Still’s Reims side had, somewhat ironically, been held to a 1-1 draw by RC Lens in Ligue 1. It was the club’s fourth game without a win yet they remained more than competitive in the top half of the league table. At the very least, Still’s availability did not necessarily point towards being an option for Sunderland.

In part, that could be why Sunderland took the decision to appoint Dodds on an interim basis until the end of the season. Equally, it provided Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman the opportunity to obtain complete clarity on who they wanted to take charge of the club next season, with a raft of names linked, from Paul Heckingbottom and Danny Rohl to Rene Maric and Bo Svensson.

As time progressed, however, and candidates became unavailable elsewhere, it became clear that Still’s exit from the champagne city had piqued the interest of the Sunderland hierarchy once more. And it’s that aspect which makes the likelihood of Still moving elsewhere the biggest disappointment in all of this. If Sunderland have identified a leading candidate over the course of the last six months since deciding to part ways with Mowbray, only to come up short, it leaves a lot to be desired.




It then becomes the latest in a catalogue of events over the last 12 months which have damaged the reputation of the decision-makers at the Stadium of Light, dating back to the end of last season and the speculation surrounding Mowbray’s future, despite guiding the club to the Championship play-offs, amid links with Italian coach Francesco Farioli.

Farioli has continued to have a subplot throughout Sunderland’s prolonged search given his success with French side Nice has recently seen him appointed new head coach of Ajax, opening up a vacancy at Nice which Lens coach Franck Haise is expected to take. Haise’s imminent move to the south of France is what has led to Sunderland now being set to miss out on Still, with the 31-year-old favoured to replace Haise in Lens and remain in France.

Those background uncertainties relating to Farioli a year ago were followed by an unsuccessful transfer window, an inconsistent season, at first, a managerial change which backfired, a complete lack of judgement regarding the Wear-Tyne derby with Newcastle United and that inconsistent season transforming into an outright consistently bad one.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland supporters have grown frustrated over the course of the last 12 months at the Stadium of LightSunderland supporters have grown frustrated over the course of the last 12 months at the Stadium of Light (Image: Ian Horrocks)

But did it have to be this way?

That is the question which will be imprinted on the lips of any number of supporters, with Sunderland, seemingly, heading back to the drawing board in their search. If there were supporters who hadn’t reached the tipping point, it feels like they are joining the rest of those who had.

In what was already a significant summer for the club with regards to their recruitment drive and the future of a number of key assets within the squad, the club’s lack of clarity and direction is now right at the forefront after their breakdown with Still.

It is where the idea the club is keen to advocate regarding a succession plan will become absolutely critical over the coming days. It’s accepted that not every decision in football will go your way, there will be hardships along the way. At the moment, it feels like it’s one too many for Sunderland.

Where do the club turn to next? It's a pertinent question. 

Bayern Munich's youth coach Maric has returned to the top of several bookmakers' lists, with clarity over his future still to be confirmed in Bavaria following Vincent Kompany's arrival, with some suggestion as to whether he will be promoted to form part of the Belgian's first team backroom staff.

Liam Rosenior, another name who has been linked since being sacked from Hull City at the end of the season, remains on the market, as does Paul Heckingbottom - someone the club have held under consideration at varying stages under the current ownership. We Are Sunderland have reported how the club has held talks with unnamed candidates in recent weeks, with the club understood to possess 'live targets' in the wake of the fallout with Still. 

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland look set to miss out on Will Still after a breakdown in negotiationsSunderland look set to miss out on Will Still after a breakdown in negotiations (Image: Image: Matthieu Mirville / DPPI)

Until Still is confirmed elsewhere you can never say never in football, but there will clearly be frustration from both camps as to how events of this week have transpired. 

Upon his exit from Reims, club president Jean-Pierre Caillot spoke of how Still's demeanour had altered, where the 'Will Still effect' led to 'a lot of communications from him, a lot of requests.' Still, in that sense, is a young head coach who knows what he wants and complements the idea of a disagreement over his boundaries when it comes to his backroom staff at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland appear keen not to disturb too much of the fabric of the coaching set-up at the Academy of Light with Dodds, Michael Proctor and Alessandro Barcherini making up the core of that staff. Still had a number of staff with him in Reims, including his brother, Nicolas, who it's believed he would have wanted on Wearside, too. 

Does it boil down to the club being overly stubborn in their demands? Or does it point to Still moving too many goalposts as he seeks for the best deal for himself in the next stage of his career? Again, the truth may lie somewhere in the middle. 

The crux, however, remains that overriding sense of frustration. Where Sunderland's Championship rivals have acted decisively in appointing new head coaches over recent weeks, Sunderland's pursuit looks set to continue for some time yet, where their hesitation has all but led to them missing out on their leading candidate. 

For both parties, it's not a good look. Yet, whether Still would have lived up to the pedestal he had been placed upon or not, it feels like it's a more damaging blow for Sunderland to miss out on Still than it is for Still to miss out on Sunderland - particularly if he is to link up with Lens and coach in the Europa Conference League next season.  

For Sunderland, it's back to the drawing board, and quickly.