Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn is all-smiles as he presents new manager Roy Keane to the media in August 2006
By Andrew McKenzie
BBC Sport at Old Trafford
How do you replace a man like Roy Keane?
It is a question that would have tested the combined managerial skills of the late Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough and Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ferguson's United side were short of a Keane in the driving seat as they struggled to break down a spirited but limited Sunderland team at Old Trafford on Saturday.
The agonisingly late 1-0 defeat leaves the Black Cats in the relegation places as chairman Niall Quinn begins the search for a worthy successor to fill the considerable void left by Keane's sudden departure.
"Roy was a dream to work with and will be very hard to replace," said Quinn. "We will not get another like him, that's for sure."
It is an unenviable task for a chairman who appears to have been affected more than anyone by Keane's decision to jump ship at the first signs of a major leak. It could also prove to be the most important selection he makes in his time at the Sunderland helm.
Having bankrolled some whirlwind spending under Keane, it would be no exaggeration to say that relegation would be a financial disaster for the Wearside club.
Quinn insisted the Black Cats are in no rush to find Keane's successor but with a hectic Christmas period and January transfer window on their doorstep it is not a decision he can ponder for too long.
Caretaker boss Ricky Sbragia will be in no hurry to see a new man installed and if he can inspire a similar effort in upcoming games against West Brom and Hull then he cannot be counted out of the running.
Sbragia did not enjoy as storied a playing career as Keane or even Quinn but his calming manner around the dressing room might just be the ingredient that has been missing from a melting pot that had threatened to boil over in recent weeks.
Sbragia has been placed in charge until a new manager is appointed
The 52-year-old, who underwent his coaching apprenticeship with spells at York, Manchester United and Bolton, almost masterminded only a second Premier League point from a possible 24 for Sunderland at Old Trafford. And that was despite having only 48 hours to prepare the players in the wake of Keane's exit.
Sbragia did so by inspiring the sort of backs-to-the-wall effort that a week ago might have convinced Keane into sticking around for a bit longer.
El-Hadji Diouf played the full 90 minutes for the first time since the loss to Stoke in October that started the unravelling of the Keane era and he responded with a selfless performance as virtually a second left-back.
Pascal Chimbonda, another player supposedly in Keane's doghouse, responded with a passionate display, while both Danny Collins and Dean Whitehead put their nightmares against Bolton behind them.
Had the team managed to hold out a few minutes longer and secure a goalless draw, it would have owed much to a newly- discovered belief but also the sort of good fortune that escaped Keane in the final few weeks of his reign.
Quinn will be keeping his four leaf clovers crossed in the hope that luck returns in the coming weeks.
The smart money appears to be on Allardyce returning to the club where he has already had spells as a player, captain and coach
But it says much for how far Sunderland have travelled in the two-and-a-quarter years under Keane and Quinn that their managerial options are significantly more appealing than in previous times.
The last time Quinn started a search for a manager he ended up with the man in the mirror.
After initially being turned down by Keane, Quinn was said to have chased Martin O'Neill, Alan Curbishley and Sam Allardyce before braving it out himself until he could convince Keane to come on board.
This time Quinn says he has already received 30 "sensible applications", with both Curbishley and Allardyce seemingly among them.
Whoever comes in will find a club with enough talent and time to climb the table, a chairman who is likely to offer unequivocal support and the facilities and finances in place to compete in the Premier League.
Next five Premier League games
Sat 13 Dec: West Brom (h)
Sat 20 Dec: Hull (a)
Fri 26 Dec: Blackburn (h)
Sun 28 Dec: Everton (a)
Sat 10 Jan: Middlesbrough (a)
After promising Sunderland fans a world-class manager last time, Quinn took an almighty gamble in appointing Keane.
A manager's stock can rise and fall but that decision certainly paid some dividends along the way.
But it is doubtful whether Quinn can afford to roll the dice again as he looks to replace the irreplaceable.
Perhaps his only call is for a safe pair of hands this time around. The smart money appears to be on Allardyce returning to the club where he has already had spells as a player, captain and coach.
It would not be a universally popular move - considering his recent flirtation with rivals Newcastle and his reputation for disregarding aesthetics in the favour of effort and efficiency.
But the biggest barrier he or any of the other candidates is likely to face is that they just are not Roy Keane.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.