Sunderland warming to humble Scot Sbragia

INTERRUPTED though he was by off-camera shouts from his players of "give him the job", it was still impossible to miss the thick Glasgow brogue as Ricky Sbragia answered a television reporter's questions at the weekend, following Sunderland's second consecutive victory under his currently interim charge.

The footage proved two things. One: Sbragia is the popular choice to replace Roy Keane at Sunderland. And two: you can take the boy out of Glasgow, but not Glasgow out of the boy.

The surname might not give it away, but the accent does. Born in Lennoxtown 52 years ago and raised in Castlemilk, the current Sunderland stand-in manager is as Scottish as Keane is Irish. But few outwith the game perhaps realise the man with the surname which points to Italian heritage is helping sustain the Scottish reputation for providing England with esteemed thinkers about the game.

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The current manager of the world champions is a Scot, and Sbragia is one of many to have learned from Sir Alex Ferguson. But his time at Manchester United as reserve team coach, between 2002 and 2005 , was not the consequence of an old pals' act. Sbragia simply asked Ferguson, who he didn't know personally, for an interview when he heard Mike Phelan complain of the job-load on his shoulders. He impressed Ferguson enough to be recruited.

Jimmy Calderwood, who grew up with Sbragia in Castlemilk, yesterday said this reflected the determination that was evident when Sbragia was still a teenager. "He was always a quiet, unassuming lad," recalled the Aberdeen manager. "But he was always very driven. You don't get into Sir Alex Ferguson's domain if you don't have qualities. He likes to see football played the right way. You can see that from Sunderland's performances."

Sbragia's progress has occurred below the sightline of many in Scotland. Some, probably most of them Morton fans, might recall his short spell on loan in Scotland with the Greenock club in the mid Seventies. He played the last four matches of the 1975-76 season, as Morton brought to an end a season spent at the wrong end of the First Division. Calderwood, who played with Sbragia at Birmingham City, remembered a player who sought to live up to his Italian name, inherited from an Italian grandfather.

"He was a big centre-half whose first instinct was to defend, but who wanted to play the ball a bit too," he said. His brief adventure in Scottish football included trips to Firhill, Shawfield and Links Park, Montrose. Included among his team-mates at the time was Mark McGhee, who was just making his way in the game.

Except for a spell with Rangers when a schoolboy, these four games with Morton formed Sbragia's only experience of working professionally in his native country. He has, however, been invited by the Scottish Football Association to instruct at coaching courses in Largs.

The rest of his playing career was spent at clubs in England. After Birmingham, where he made his debut against Brian Clough's Leeds United but sustained a serious injury soon after, there followed stop-offs at Walsall, Blackpool and York City. Having earned his coaching badge at Lilleshall in 1990 he began coaching Sunderland youth teams, and is a popular figure on Wearside.

He remains circumspect about his chances of being handed the top job at Sunderland on a full-time basis. He could hardly have done anymore to catch the attention of chairman Niall Quinn, with his side having twice scored four goals in each of their last two outings to propel themselves up the table.

The players have led the chorus line for Sbragia, both on camera and off it. He has kept faith with his players, which was something Keane rarely did. Only once in the Irishman's 100 games as manager did he send the same 11 players out twice in succession. Sbragia has done this already, in a reign lasting just three games to date.

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"I think you can see from our performances that we like and respect Ricky," said striker Kenwyne Jones. "We have brought back something that was missing from our performances. Perhaps it was a bit of togetherness that was missing, I don't know, but we have proved now that we can come together as a team and fight."

Sbragia insists he has only made "tweaks" to the team since Keane's departure, but it's clear from Jones' comments, and those from his team-mates as Sbragia sought to complete a post-match interview on Saturday, that a more cordial atmosphere has settled across the Stadium of Light. Keane has been criticised for being too distant from his players. This is not something that can be levelled at Sbragia, who has no reason to feel aloof from players who Keane might have regarded as simply not deserving of his time and effort.

Alex Rae played for Sbragia at Sunderland during the mid-Nineties and the pair remain friends to this day. Indeed, the former Dundee manager spoke to Sbragia as recently as last week, and reported how little he has changed since the days when Rae patrolled the midfield in his all-conquering Sunderland reserve team.

"He was great to the players, always so well mannered," recalled Rae. "He won back to back league titles in the Reserve league, so the players clearly responded to him. I have been going on-line to read the local paper at Sunderland, and it is clear he still gets a good reaction from his players. All the big-hitters are backing him."

Sbragia, though, isn't one for getting carried away. "I appreciate where I've come from," he said in 2005. "My family are like that. My wife's from Castlemilk, too, so we take things in our stride. I don't seek attention.

"People talk about rough areas but they've never been to Castlemilk. I had one pair of shoes for school and had to cut insoles from a cereal packet."

His playing career, spent mostly at unglamorous clubs, further impressed upon him the importance of honest hard work. That he might soon occupy one of only 20 jobs on offer in the most high profile league in Europe, and in doing so become Sunderland's first Scottish manager since Ian McColl in the Sixties, would form his significant reward.

Quinn will take his time over appointment

Damian Spellman

SUNDERLAND chairman Niall Quinn is expected to sit down with caretaker manager Ricky Sbragia later this week to gauge his feelings on a more permanent role.

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The Scot continues to impress after being placed in temporary charge of team affairs in the wake of Roy Keane's resignation earlier this month, and led his side to a second successive Barclays Premier League victory at Hull on Saturday.

As long as the Black Cats prosper under his charge, Quinn and his fellow directors will be under little pressure to make a swift appointment.

However, there is a growing feeling that Sbragia is doing such a good job at the Stadium of Light that he is establishing himself not only as the bookmakers' favourite – Ladbrokes were yesterday quoting him at evens with Alan Curbishley his closest rival at 8/1 – but as the leading candidate in the boardroom.

The former Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers coach has admitted he does not know whether he would want the job if an offer came his way.

It is understood Quinn will hold talks with Sbragia within the next few days to discuss the way forward, but there will continue to be no rush to install Keane's successor whatever the outcome.

Speculation continues to link a series of managers with the vacancy, with Poland coach Leo Beenhakker once again among the headlines at the weekend as well as, intriguingly, current Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear.

The man in charge at St James' Park was swift to dismiss the stories after Sunday afternoon's 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur, but his position on Tyneside remains uncertain beyond the end of this season, with the club still up for sale.