Posted: Sun March 31, 2013 11:13AM; Updated: Sun March 31, 2013 11:12AM

Sunderland fires manager Martin O'Neill

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Sunderland is now only one point clear of relegation after eight Premier League matches without a win.
Sunderland is now only one point clear of relegation after eight Premier League matches without a win.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

SUNDERLAND, England (AP) -- The Premier League's biggest ever television contract doesn't kick in until next season, but the far-reaching effects of the deal are already being seen at the bottom of England's top division.

Sunderland became the fourth relegation-haunted club to fire its manager in barely four months when Martin O'Neill's 15-month spell at the Stadium of Light was brought to an end late Saturday.

Queens Park Rangers, Southampton and Reading have changed their managers since the end of November, with owners clearly nervous about the prospect of missing out on a windfall of at least 60 million pounds ($91 million) of TV money in each of the next three seasons.

The Premier League last year struck a mighty 3 billion pound ($4.5 billion) deal for domestic TV rights between 2013-16, a 70 percent increase on the previous contract, while overseas TV income for the same period is likely to surge past 2 billion pounds ($3 billion).

Never has staying in the world's most-watched league been so important, at least in financial terms.

Ellis Short, Sunderland's American owner, will hope a change in coach is the catalyst the team requires to pull clear of relegation trouble, after slipping to within a point of the bottom three with the 1-0 loss to Manchester United on Saturday.

Sunderland has been flat and tactically rigid for some time, with the typically bubbly demeanor of O'Neill - one of British football's most popular coaches - long since gone. He has had a forlorn look for much of the season, and that has transferred onto the pitch in a string of labored displays.

The spark of the early months of O'Neill's tenure disappeared.

"As a whole, they've struggled this season,'' former Sunderland player Kevin Kilbane told the BBC on Sunday. "Now they've made the change and you've got to respect the owners for doing that, but I don't think it's the right decision to make.

"I think they should have continued with Martin O'Neill until the end of the season and tried to establish themselves in the Premier League, but this puts everything back up in the air again.''

The timing of Short's decision certainly appears strange, with the Premier League having just resumed after a two-week break for international fixtures. Some have claimed it would have been better for O'Neill to have departed a fortnight ago to give the new manager time to get used to the squad.

Making the decision after a loss, albeit a disappointing one, to the champions-elect seems reactionary.

"I doubt if a manager can come in now and really change things around until the end of the season,'' Kilbane said.

The agent of Steve McClaren ruled the former England manager out of the running Sunday, saying Sunderland already had a replacement lined up.

British media say former Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo, ex-QPR boss Mark Hughes and Paolo Di Canio, who recently quit third-tier Swindon Town, are among the favorites.

Whoever does come in will have a tough fixture list to contend with, with Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton next up for Sunderland. Only four games remain after that, and worryingly many of its relegation rivals are starting to pick up points.

Wigan has begun its typical end-of-season recovery and Aston Villa has had a more resilient look to the team over the past two months.

O'Neill's replacement will be without top scorer Steven Fletcher for the rest of the season because of injury and a backup striker in Danny Graham who hasn't scored a goal in seven games since joining from Swansea in January. Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has easily been Sunderland's player of the season and his form could be the determining factor over whether the team stays up.

As for O'Neill, sacked for the first time in his managerial career, his future looks bleak.

Famed for his ability to get the best out of average players and to energize and motivate, those qualities quickly dried up at Sunderland, where his tactics were outmoded. He appears to have been left behind in an era of young, hungry managers like Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino and, at the age of 61, it might be the end of him at Premier League level.

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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