Now that Jack Ross has been appointed as the new Sunderland manager, what do we know about him and what are his football philosophies?
Well, luckily for us, while he was still a player Ross wrote a regular blog on the BBC website where he discussed his views on a wide range of football subjects, quite a few of which now make for interesting reading now he’s our manager.
We trawled through the blog and have chosen a few interesting titbits that give us an insight into the Scotsman’s core opinions on the game - some of which might help Sunderland supporters understand what we’ll be getting once he’s able to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in.
Appointment of a new manager
The circumstances surrounding any change in leadership is obviously a major factor, as successful managers poached by bigger clubs will invariably have been in charge of successful teams, while a struggling side will see a boss relieved of his duties.
Therefore, a new manager can inherit very different levels of confidence and morale, and, in some cases, even ability.
The test of a successful gaffer, then, is to impress their methods upon their new players and try to improve upon what their predecessor has achieved.
How players respond is of course the measure of the manager’s capabilities, but in many cases there is an almost instant improvement in performance levels. Why should that happen?
The desire to impress is an obvious answer, as those considered first-team regulars aim to cement their status, while those on the fringes detect an opportunity to stake a claim for a place in the team.
Consequently, the presence of a new manager on the training ground ensures the tempo in training increases, but should players not question their own attitude and application, if indeed there is someone whose performance levels have dipped significantly?
I am well aware that players at times will not enjoy good relations with a manager, and that they can be cast aside without good reason at times, but ultimately it can be an easy excuse to blame mis-management for their own failings.
However, a manager who can keep the number of disgruntled or disillusioned players to a minimum is one who should go on to enjoy a long and productive career.
The perfect chairman
To begin with I must be honest and say that if I was in a position where I had the means to secure ownership of a football club I would find it hard not to be regularly offering my opinion to my manager on those matters listed above.
Having had playing experience I would feel that my opinion was worth listening to, and yet for this same reason I would realise how important it would be for me to resist the urge to interfere and consequently allow the manager and players to do their jobs.
This would seem to suggest that perhaps clubs would benefit from a chairman who has played the game at a professional level.
But history shows that such an arrangement can have mixed results with the rise and rise of Wigan under the stewardship of Dave Whelan being incredible, while Francis Lee endured disappointing results in charge of the boardroom of Manchester City.
Jim McLean at Dundee United was a rare Scottish example of a former player taking ownership of a prominent senior club.
And the varying fortunes of the examples given only highlight that there would be no guarantee of success if the future brought a player-turns-chairman scenario.
If we accept that there is no pre requisite for success in terms of a chairman’s playing experience, are there other factors that are important in securing good relations with a manger and players and subsequent success for the club?
In my own experience, those chairmen who are most respected are those who are able to distance themselves in the appropriate manner but who are also capable of making the players aware of how much they are supporting them in their quest for success.
For example, I have experienced some owners who like to be in and around the dressing room and training ground and others who players would struggle to recognise such is their detachment.
With regards to the former I think there is a fine line to be drawn between being involved and impinging on match day preparations.
Of course there may be a view that if you invest and own a club you should be able to have as much access as you desire but I know that players and coaches do not appreciate this as they rightly believe that pre match is a vital time for mental and physical preparation and any distractions are unwelcome.
Therefore it seems that opinion from the playing side of the game is that the ideal chairman is one who enjoys good relations with his staff but knows the boundaries that separate him from those he has put his trust in to produce on the field.
The secret to becoming a great manager
What does a player expect from a manager? I suspect most would go for: leadership, good communication, honesty, good coaching and tactical ability among other attributes.
However, would any player expect their boss to have a qualification in management?
This time I would suggest not many, as often new mangers progress into their new role directly from the playing side, and with very little experience to prepare them for the non-football side of management.
I’m not entirely convinced that such a qualification is a necessity to become a successful manager; yet there is no doubt that currently, and in the future, more clubs will place just as much importance upon these qualifications as they do coaching licences.
There is evidence of this in the popularity of such a management course provided down south by Warwick University, and the fact that there are advanced plans for a similar course to begin at a university in Scotland.
The benefits to those wishing to move into management are that they will be provided with an educational programme which should help improve their ability to interact with their players, board of directors and the media.
This, added to the football knowledge they have gathered from their career, should improve their chances of success.
With the increased demand for this type of qualification, it dilutes the theory that being a great player guarantees being a great manager.
Although there are examples to support and dispel such an ideal, I personally have never believed that a top management career will follow a top playing career.
Undoubtedly, there are advantages of having been a top class player when you move into management in that there will be initial, unconditional respect from your players.
For example, if I was at a club and a former internationalist with 50-plus caps is appointed my boss, then I will immediately be respectful of his achievements.
However, if their coaching and/or management are poor then this respect will quickly disappear, therefore suggesting that those great players who have the successful transition to being a gaffer have been able to maintain and increase the level of respect.
My theory would also suggest that those who have had more modest playing careers have to work that little bit harder to win players over, or be clever and creative enough to have a style which ensures their players respond to their methods.
The incredible achievements in management by the likes of Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger prove beyond any doubt that being a successful football boss is about far more than being able to list your playing achievements - it may soon be also be about displaying your general management qualifications as well!
I think back to my own apprenticeship, one of the reasons why perhaps I did not stay on at Dundee at that time was my mind-set.
I am not saying it was a poor attitude, in fact if pushed I would say it was good.
However, only good in the sense that I carried out my off-field duties well, trained and played in the proper manner and prepared in a disciplined way for games.
At that time I believed that this was sufficient, but as I matured I realised that there were aspects missing from my approach that could have made all the difference.
One was my willingness to push my own boundaries physically. This is interesting because as a footballer you can almost drift along at a certain level of fitness as your day-to-day training will ensure you of a decent base level.
However, to give yourself an advantage you must be prepared to take yourself out of your comfort zone and go through the painful parts of training.
My attitude with respect to this probably didn’t change until I was back playing Junior football. I certainly was not a stand-out player at this level when I initially joined the ranks and indeed sometimes found myself warming the bench.
Eventually, I made a determined effort to change this and try to take myself to a better level and initially this change was simply getting a bench press for my bedroom and going road running at nights.
There was nothing scientific or ground-breaking in my new approach but it certainly gave me a much more solid platform from which to try and re-launch my career, and also a new stronger attitude and one that has continued to evolve for the better.
The correct outlook in football is therefore vital, and encompasses so many aspects of the game.
Another area particularly relevant to me at the moment is a player’s attitude to injury.
There is no question that players find mid to long-term injury difficult to deal with as the solitude and monotony of rehabilitation is a world away from the excitement of playing.
In that sense players such as my own team-mate Tam Brighton and Jon Daly at Dundee United deserve huge credit for the attitude they have displayed in dealing successfully with such an injury.
While these players are to be admired, what about player’s attitudes to less serious injury -does it change from player to player? In my own experience it certainly does as I have played with many who play and train with knocks and strains and others who miss out with the slightest problem.
Perhaps those who fall into the latter category are correct as they are only playing if 100% fit and thus in the optimum physical condition, but, for me, those who are willing to play while in some discomfort are to be lauded.
Throughout a season most players will suffer some forms of injury, and by this stage many will be playing with these niggles. Any visit to a dressing room pre-match would confirm this as players wear strappings, take anti inflammatory tablets and so on.
These players are prepared to play on because their attitude is strong enough, an attitude which has seen them get to the top flight and be successful.
For those young players about to learn their fate, perhaps the following quote from retired American Football coach Lou Holtz is appropriate.
”Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”
Influence of fans
Is it fair to say that those in attendance at a match can have an influence on players, teams and therefore results?
Most people involved in football would suggest they do, as witnessed by those teams who turn home stadiums into fortresses with the help of a fervent support and those who achieve near impossible results with the backing of a larger than normal and more audible away support than normal.
My own view is that there are other factors which will have a greater influence on performance but there is no question that a positive and passionate support behind you is still a significant tool in terms of what can help a player.
In my own experience, I have usually been more aware of or felt a greater influence of fans supporting my side when I have played away from home. As a rule, it would seem that those who travel tend to offer more vocal support than at home and there are several matches which I remember fondly for such reasons.
In my time at Falkirk, the derby match at East End Park against Dunfermline always saw Falkirk carry a huge support to Fife and, as you exited the tunnel at the far end of the stadium, you could not fail to be motivated by the sight of a packed away stand at the far end of the ground. A further match where the fans undoubtedly played a significant role was strangely enough at Falkirk for St Mirren in a crucial relegation game. The Buddies fans were present in large numbers even as we went out to warm up and their backing was vital in a great team performance.
Therefore, if it is agreed that fans can help a team win a game then is it safe to assume that an overly critical support can inhibit a player or a side’s display. Again I would say, to a certain degree, of course a player should be strong enough to accept criticism and most accept it as part of the job but there are occasions when it can become a problem and difficult to handle.
Players, in my opinion, easily deal with abuse from supporters of other teams but can react badly when on the receiving end from their own fans. I have played with team-mates who have clearly become targets from fans and others who have heard those backing their own team cheer as they are substituted. In each case it is usually very evident as to how much it impacts upon their displays but also how much it drives them on to improve displays and win over the doubters.
As the start of the season draws ever closer, players will expect criticism, most will receive it; but when the praise and support is clearly felt it might just be the difference between defeat and victory, sixth place or ninth place and so on.
The first point of discussion is whether or not this responsibility lies solely with the coaching staff or whether players are responsible for creating their own togetherness.
If you take the view that the manager is the main catalyst for this, then what are their main strategies to try to achieve it?
If a manager is allowed to add to his squad then he will seek to attract players who he feels have the necessary characteristics to gel with the players he already has.
In this respect, he will have a certain amount of control in the creation of team spirit.
Conversely, if he has to make do with the squad he inherits then he must attempt to do this in other ways.
A popular method, and one used in many other industries, is “team bonding” days with players going go-karting, paint-balling or golfing, with the emphasis being on spending time together in a relaxed atmosphere.
It is fair to say that if a manager has a playing squad that enjoys socialising together, then it is a positive step towards a united camp.
In my own experience, one of the most beneficial tools at a manager’s disposal is pre-season training camps. Undoubtedly, the restricted budgets enforced upon many managers have limited their ability to take players away, but those who are able to do so recognise the importance of such trips.
For example, my first season at St Mirren included an eight-day training stint in Italy where we trained twice a day, ate every meal together and spent any free time together at the pool or in the hotel games room.
Consequently, a strong sense of familiarity and loyalty could begin to grow between the players.
There are of course other situations which can create enormous togetherness within a squad and which have nothing to do with the manager.
One such source of this is when a squad is faced with adversity, such as the possibility of administration, the loss of key players through injury or being written off as no-hopers.
Often in cases like these a clever manager will recognise they can turn a negative into a benefit for their team.
The master of such a technique is probably Jose Mourinho, who has created almost a siege mentality within all his teams and hence united them in a manner conducive to achieving major success.
It is evident that management play a major part in creating and sustaining excellent team spirit but I would also suggest that the players are vital in ensuring it all comes together.
The ability of a manager to choose his captain and vice captain is crucial as these dominant figures within a dressing room will have influence over other members of the squad and be key in ensuring that every individual player is focused on the same goal.
In my short time at Dunfermline I have been hugely impressed by the unity within the squad, and have no doubts the success the management team have had in achieving this will be a major asset for us as the season progresses.
Finally, the use of quotations around dressing room walls is another method aimed at inspiring team spirit. I have seen many during my career with one of the simplest but most appropriate being “players win games, teams win championships”.
The value of experience
For footballers, the accumulation of years will eventually end their playing days but at what age should players think that their best days are behind them, and indeed in the modern football world are we too quick to write players off?
I think it is fair to say that most assume that once a player edges towards his mid thirties then he is not capable of producing the level of performances he had previously; the main reason for this being a decrease in their physical capabilities, which is deemed to be inevitable due to the natural ageing process.
In recent times, however, there have been many examples of players who have extended their careers and in some cases achieved more success as they have celebrated birthdays, which in many people’s eyes should have seen them resigned to the soccer scrapheap.
The most significant example of this in Scotland is David Weir, whose achievements in playing starring roles in domestic, European and international football should never be underestimated.
Undoubtedly, David will have made adjustments to his physical preparation and recovery process as he got older and this awareness of new methods and willingness to embrace it has ensured he has provided a tremendous example for other experienced professionals to try and follow.
Another factor that is important to a player’s ability to prolong their career is the type of attributes they have relied on to be a success in their younger years.
Those whose pace has proved to be their biggest asset may find it more difficult to be as influential as they get older while those who built a career on being able to read the game well should prosper.
Of course, the clever players and ultimately the very good ones will recognise if they have to change position and adapt their game as they mature, with Ryan Giggs being one of the greatest examples of this.
He has been intelligent enough to be able to transform himself from an out-and-out winger to a player equally as comfortable playing in the middle of the park and has continued to be much admired.
Despite highlighting players who have proven that age should not be a factor even at the highest level, I actually feel that we are too hasty in this country to dismiss the value of more experienced players.
There is almost a stigma attached to having a three as the first part of your age and yet the fact that players are blessed with greater knowledge of diet and fitness combined with the unquestionable game experience they have should make them desirable to clubs.
I understand that supporters will always be more excited by a teenager bursting into the first team or signing from a lower league team than the addition of a thirty-something player with 400 games under his belt.
I also recognise that owners of clubs will prefer the former as the slimmest sell-on potential from them will be seen as preferable to the reliability of the latter.
However, perhaps as a biased 34-year-old, my opinion is that there is a danger of good players creeping beyond thirty being prematurely lost to the game.
Technique over physique
It is often said that those who have proven themselves the greatest exponents of our sport were simply born to be great players.
If you believe this to be the case then being a successful player is about being blessed with an ability which enables you to control and pass the ball, rather than just harbouring a strong ambition to be a footballer and trying to attain every skill necessary to do so.
I want to examine whether or not the modern game is more accommodating of those who have developed excellent athletic prowess, and indeed whether these players are more preferable to those who only possess natural football ability and lack other attributes?
It was the publicity generated by Partick Thistle’s promising young player Shaun Fraser which was the catalyst for this thought.
His manager Ian McCall has praised the youngster’s recent performances and added that they were perhaps even more remarkable given that the player concentrated on rugby until his mid-teenage years.
I am not suggesting that Shaun is not an accomplished, technically gifted player, as without having seen him play it would be nonsensical to offer such an opinion.
However, the fact that he was a sufficiently talented sportsman to play another sport before focusing on football could suggest that in future there will be more players who have gained supreme athletic capabilities prior to concentrating on football rather than those who have relied solely on the talent they are fortunate enough to possess.
For such a theory to be proven correct, managers would have to direct those within their scouting system to identify strength, speed and stamina as priorities over skill. If they did this, they would do it in the belief that they could then mould these natural athletes into capable football players.
I have not encountered such a school of thought in my career but it may already be the case in the game, especially as pace and power seem increasingly prominent in our sport.
Of course, if there are managers or coaches who believe this is the future then a glance at the top three players in the recent world’s best player vote would cause them to reassess their beliefs - the diminutive Messi, Iniesta and Xavi are not what some would perceive as the identikit athlete.
What, therefore, are the special skills that these players have that in my opinion can simply never be taught?
It is the ability to have a picture in their head of the game two or three passes ahead of everyone else - the best way I can describe this is that the likes of Xavi play the game like they are watching it from high up in the stands.
As a player I can be watching a game from the stand and see where the next pass should go, but I know from experience that if you are on the pitch with opponents pressuring you and 21 other bodies on the field, these passes are a lot more difficult to see!
In my view players are born with football ability which is a gift and which offers them a fantastic opportunity of a successful career in the game.
However, the sheer physicality of today’s game allied to the speed of matches and players mean that there is a growing emphasis of being an all-round athlete.
The use of sports science is a sure sign that clubs are keen to ensure that even their most gifted talents are capable of dealing with the demands of present day football.
Hopefully the game will always harness that need for ability and that we can judge youngsters with a ball at their feet only, and not with a dumb-bell in each hand!
Patience needed for young players
Steady progression or instant impression?
What do we expect from our young players?
I began to debate this in the aftermath of the transfer on Friday of my former team-mate, Stephen McGinn, to Watford and question at what age players, managers and supporters expect young professionals to be starring in first-team football.
In Stephen’s case, he is probably the perfect example of an apprentice who has made gradual inroads into top-team football, steadily increasing his number of first-team appearances since he made his debut at the age of 18 until he became a permanent fixture in our team this season.
This successful transition is, of course, a consequence of his undoubted ability but also down to a fantastic desire to listen to advice, learn from it and do as much as possible to improve his game, from the technical aspect to his physical condition.
It is therefore clear that Stephen has made the most of the platform given to him by St Mirren and yet, as a teenager, there was no clear guarantee that he would go on to progress as he has.
I was released at 18 from Dundee, with the reason given that I was not ready for first-team football. I could not argue with that assessment as I wasn’t, but should I have been, or is it correct to use such an age as a cut-off point for further development?
Despite my experience, I do agree that managers and coaches have to make judgements on players at certain stages of their careers and, as the latter teenage years coincide with the possible jump from apprenticeship to professional contracts, then it is inevitable that it is at this time that dreams can be shattered.
Furthermore, there are many people within football who would argue that these judgements are usually correct and that those players who are released do not have the necessary attributes to be successful professionals.
However, as always, there are exceptions to the rule and the game is littered with those who have had fantastic careers despite not following the conventional route to success and who only began to impress in the senior game as they reached their twenties.
Probably the most striking example of this is the Rangers captain, David Weir, a player who, having spent time studying and playing in the USA, returned to Scotland to begin a wonderful professional career at the age of 22.
This example, and others such as the former Arsenal striker, Ian Wright, can only serve as encouragement to those young players unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of which at times is only one opinion and perhaps inspire some to play their way back to a high level.
I acknowledge that there will always be those who are earmarked for the very top from a very early age and who progress as expected.
Aiden McGeady is one who has carried such expectation for several years and, indeed, is probably a player who satisfies both questions posed in my opening line in that he has continued to improve each season after initially grabbing headlines with a debut goal for Celtic while still a teenager.
However, surely the superstars are the easy ones to spot, the easy ones to tip for the top. It is those who may just be late developers, who may just be good enough and hungry enough to keep developing, that are the more difficult to foster.
In the short-term demands of the modern game, it takes a brave manager to develop these players, but sometimes fortune favours the brave.
Coping with Aiden McGeady
During my own career, I have had to face very different wide players, from those with great pace to those who are fantastic at taking players on and I therefore have had to use a combination of managers’ instruction and my own insight into knowing how best to adapt my game to suit.
One of my most difficult opponents, and one I played against on many occasions, was Aiden McGeady - and, in his case, my gameplan was to prevent Aiden getting on the ball with time to turn and run at me as if this was allowed to happen then he was very dangerous.
Such a strategy is just one example and I should point out that it should not just be viewed in a negative sense as Aiden McGeady and others, such as Shunsuke Nakamura, loved to go infield and join in with their central midfielders. Therefore, I was fully aware of this and always keen to try to exploit this by using their absence on the wide areas to get forward and try to create opportunities.
Similarly, it is not just defenders who will study strikers with the aim of preventing them scoring or creating. Attacking players will do exactly the same and thus look to get in behind those players they believe lack pace, or apply pressure quickly to those who they feel are not very comfortable in possession.
Football is always about seeking advantages and, as I mentioned at the beginning, managers will seek tactics to ensure them for their side, but players being students of the game only makes this more likely and success a more realistic possibility.
The changing face of preparation
While the significance of a match day has remained untouched, there has undoubtedly been a big change in how both coaches and players prepare for this judgement day.
In my own experience, the differences were only evident in terms of the tempo and intensity of training and the individual ability of players as I progressed to better teams and leagues.
This was until I signed for Falkirk and the club began to base itself at the University of Stirling. I consequently embarked upon a significant strength and conditioning programme, made possible by the facilities and staff available at the University.
I have always been very open minded with regards to new training methods, especially those which could improve performance levels and prolong your career, but I am honest enough to admit that beginning such a different training regime at the age of 29 brought some challenges.
However, once my body adjusted to the demands of the new schedule, I certainly moved to a new level in terms of fitness and physique.
The strength and conditioning work was carried out alongside a regular testing programme where our body fats were monitored during 30 metre sprint tests, vertical jump tests and a “yo-yo” stamina exercise.
The frequency of these tests ensured that results consistently improved, and that I had to move with this improvement if I wanted to remain in the team.
It is still difficult to say for certain if this modern and ambitious training regime was responsible for the relative success the team had (in finishing seventh in consecutive seasons in the SPL) or whether manager John Hughes simply had a good side but it must have had some degree of influence upon our performance.
When I moved to St Mirren I found another management team keen to embrace progressive techniques and push to have the club finance individuals who help apply these methods.
An example of this at St Mirren is the work carried out by Grant Cassidy, our video analyst, who films each game and provides a DVD copy to every player who wants it.
He also compiles Prozone statistics which list an individual player’s possession and passes totals, as well as pass completion success, number of tackles made, shots taken and so on.
I personally take great interest in the stats he provides, and they undoubtedly help to give you a more balanced reflection upon your performance.
In football there is often reluctance to change and a cynicism as to the benefits that can be achieved from it. Therefore the manner in which new methods are employed can be just as important.
For example, we are required to provide urine samples before training two or three times a week so that our sports scientist can measure our hydration levels. The results are always pinned up in the dressing room, but there is no punishment for those outside the required level of hydration.
That is because the manager has always emphasised that the testing is there to educate rather than being a threat, and in truth there are usually very few players not hydrated properly.
Hopefully this provides a brief insight into how much training methods have progressed. Performances will always be criticised but preparation and dedication shouldn’t be...
Giving a new manager time
Evidence of the importance of time in football is clear in many aspects of the game.
It can be seen in the form of the simple shout given to a player to make him aware he has the opportunity to take touches on the ball or in the perfect timing shown by those who are able to run beyond their strikers to score goals.
There is even the opinion that finding the net in the last few minutes before the interval is a great time to do so and the minutes added on at the end of a match is often a source of argument.
Therefore given the significance of time in our game should we be surprised that it is emerging in a new guise; namely the duration of tenure that a manager should be afforded before he is removed from his position.
I say this as pressure intensifies on the Hibernian boss Colin Calderwood a mere 15 games into his reign in the Easter Road hot seat.
Is it sheer madness or simply a sign of the times that a manager has only three months to prove himself and achieve successful results or his job is considered under threat?
Hibs boss Colin Calderwood is feeling the heat, having won just two of his 15 matches
I accept that football is obsessed with the short term as the next match and outcome of it is usually the most important and that this week’s hero can be next week’s fall guy.
However, is it perhaps the case that in a modern football world where media scrutiny is greater than ever, and the mediums in which fans can debate and offer opinion increased dramatically, that there has been an unfair criteria set where by managers have to gain favour almost instantly.
The financial implications of a club being relegated or losing significant numbers of supporters from its home gate are perfectly sensible reasons for a club to look for a change of team leadership but unfortunately they only add to the almost unhealthy need for quick success.
Those chairmen who are bold enough to back their choice of manager through a turbulent early stage are sometimes those who are more richly rewarded for their faith.
Ultimately, a football manager will always be judged upon results but there could be an argument that this appraisal requires many more fixtures than is often the case at present.
The expectation of a quick return by club owners and supporters is not limited to mangers as players can be just as quickly written off as not suitable for their side and a bad signing.
Young players or those arriving from overseas are usually afforded more leniency and perhaps justifiably so but there is no fixed guarantee that a player moving within a domestic league will not take to adjust to a new formation or alternative style of management and playing.
Although I would say that mangers would agree with my view that they deserve more time, the nature of our game dictates that they can be just as guilty when it comes to making hasty judgements on players.
Throughout my career I have seen countless examples of good players struggle to make instant impressions at new clubs, and then suffer from a loss of confidence as their manager makes clear his lack of faith in them by omitting them from the team.
In our leagues this is usually more of an issue when a player moves to the Old Firm, and many have been quickly dismissed as unable to adjust to playing for a bigger club. The most striking example at the moment of the rewards of keeping faith in such a player is Steven Naismith who has grown into a role at Rangers where by he is vital to their chances of success.
Football in Scotland has always been played at a quick pace; it could be getting even quicker.
In a country where we also eat fast and talk fast, is it any surprise that we now expect success in an almost impossible time frame?
Patience is a virtue but it might just be the key to long-term improvement!
We hope this gives you a better idea of the type of manager we now have in charge of Sunderland, but these examples are just a sample - you can read the rest of his articles by clicking HERE.