West Ham prepare for life after Zola
Whatever the fate of West Ham's desperate bid to retain their Premier League status, I understand Gianfranco Zola's tenure at Upton Park is almost certain to end soon.
A leading agent with close ties to the club at the highest levels tells me that Steve McClaren, Martin Jol and Avram Grant are the leading candidates to replace the Italian.
Another contender, a current international manager, is also strongly in the frame, but his identity is shrouded in secrecy. It is not former West Ham fans' favourite and current Croatian boss Slaven Bilic.
If West Ham are relegated, a senior club source has told me that former boss Alan Pardew, now at Southampton, could also be in line for a shock return.
In the wake of the club's dismal capitulation to Liverpool this week, co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan have now begun actively considering the contenders to replace Zola at the end of the season.
Zola could still save himself by masterminding victories over Wigan, Fulham and Manchester City in the final three games of the season. But relegation would certainly mean the end of the Italian's tenure. Even if West Ham stumble over the line and avoid the drop, the agent is adamant that Zola is "80 to 90% certain to go".
Sullivan and Gold expect Zola, such is his integrity, to resign, even if this costs him a large amount of money in compensation. Zola has three years to run on a contract thought to earn him around £1.9m a year.
The co-owners seem loathe to sack him, something their record at Birmingham indicates. In 17 years, the pair dismissed just one manager - Barry Fry.
However, if Zola fails to jump - and he came close to resigning last month - he is almost certain to be pushed.
West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola is under severe pressure to avoid the drop
Sullivan, who has been fiercely outspoken of his players after previous defeats, declined to talk to me earlier when I rang him, despite frenzied speculation over his manager's position. But I am reliably informed that a shortlist of four candidates has been drawn up in the event of West Ham staying up.
The owners' preferred option is Steve McClaren, whose remarkable resurrection from 'Wally with a Brolly' to Dutch Master is almost complete. His redemption will be confirmed if his FC Twente side beat NAC Breda next weekend to claim the Eredivisie title for the first time since 1926.
If McClaren does become the first Englishman to win a major European league championship since Sir Bobby Robson won the Portuguese title with Porto in 1996, demand for his services will intensify throughout Europe.
That means West Ham could struggle to lure him back to the Premier League. But McClaren is aware of their interest and, with family still in England, could favour a return back across the North Sea.
With one game to play, Twente are a point clear of Ajax, now managed by former Spurs boss Martin Jol. The Dutchman is also on Gold and Sullivan's radar and is keen on a return to the Premier League.
But I'm told that he has less chance than Avram Grant, a new name on the club's wish-list. The Portsmouth manager has not yet received an approach from West Ham but has impressed with the way in which he's defiantly hauled the club to the FA Cup final despite financial catastrophe and enforced relegation.
Another former Chelsea boss, Glenn Hoddle, has also been linked with the West Ham post after coming close to managing Nigeria at the World Cup this summer. But there has not been an approach to him. Even if there was one, he is not interested, preferring to concentrate on growing his academy business.
Replacing Zola is one issue, but of much greater concern to West Ham is the savage impact that relegation would have on a club £110m in debt. A senior club insider told me today: "These three matches are the biggest in our recent history. Hull have reported they would have to axe 90 jobs if they go down. Well, the impact here could be twice as bad. It would be very, very painful."
West Ham's players said sorry to Zola after their insipid display at Anfield on Monday and vowed to respond this weekend in the showdown against Wigan.
But one suspects that, ultimately, their apologies will not prove enough to keep him in his job, whatever the result this Saturday.