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PRESS CONFERENCE: Sunderland boss Jack Ross answers questions about SACKED Didier Ndong & more

Sunderland manager Jack Ross met with the press this afternoon ahead of Saturday’s game with Coventry and answered questions on the upcoming fixture, Duncan Watmore’s fitness, Didier Ndong, Max Power, Josh Maja and more.

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Did the mentality of everyone surprise you on Saturday?

I’ve always been acutely aware of not just the expectations, but everything that goes along with managing this club. It didn’t completely surprise me, but again, I think it was just to see it first hand because you can think about it and think it’s there, but you don’t know it until it actually comes around.

It’s important to stress that the supporters have been incredibly supportive with what I’ve tried to do at the club. It certainly wasn’t even within games that they were being critical, I just think it was that overall feeling around the whole club. We’ve drawn a couple of games and we’ve lost one, it’s a disaster. We want to win every single week, but in reality, that’s not always going to happen. So, it’s how we cope with the challenge that comes along when we don’t win and the good thing for me was that the response of the players was good in training and was great last Saturday.

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On opening contract talks with Josh Maja...

No. It’s like everything nowadays, these conversations don’t often take place directly between a manager and a player. But, the desire for us to keep him at the club is absolutely concrete. That’s not just because of how he’s started the season, it was there from when I started to work with him. But, naturally, his start to the season has just heightened the attention around him. So, we want to make sure he stays here at Sunderland and we want to make sure he hopefully plays a part in the club’s progression to get back to where we want to take the club.

He’ll have decisions to make on that when it comes around, but the one thing I think about him is that he’s happy right now and he’s enjoying his football. Hopefully as a young man, he’s not in too much of a rush to get somewhere that he may get to eventually if he keeps doing what he’s doing.

A number of players were probably very uncertain about what lay ahead and that was natural because of everything that had happened at the club. I was someone that they didn’t know, hadn’t worked with before, there was a change of ownership. So, I think when we go way back to the start of pre-season, a lot of players would have come in with a lot of uncertainty about their future role at the club. Whether they were wanted and whether they wanted to be here.

So, we had to make sure we created that environment for all of the players and he’s one that has flourished under that. We could encourage him by saying that if you play regularly and if you score goals regularly, it’s going to stand you in really good stead for the rest of your career. I think he’s seen that, and that reward has come for him pretty quickly. I think he also understands that if he does that over the course of the whole season, it’s going to give him a really good platform to kick on.

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On Josh Maja in comparison to other youngsters...

I think he’s got, I’ve said this previously about Lewis Morgan who obviously went to Celtic, I think what Josh has is if you strip back his attributes he’s got a lot that gives him the chance to play at a really good level of the game. He’s got little bits of his game that he needs to improve upon, but it’s balancing that out with strengthening the things that he’s already good at.

I keep repeating myself with it, but he’s got a really good starting point because of his mindset. He’s a really nice boy, he’s intelligent, he’s bright, wants to get better, makes demands for us to make him better and takes in information. I’m excited about him, I think he forgets he’s only 19 as well. Physically, he’s going to be able to cope with the demands of the game nowadays as well. So, it’s a really good start for him and I think he’s got enough in his locker already that will give him more than a good possibility of playing at a really good level.

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On Didier Ndong...

Well, I think that its been fairly simplistic, but also relatively easy for me as a manager because of the work that’s gone on behind the scenes by other people. I’m not saying protected is the right word, but I’ve not really had to deal with a lot of it. I’ve made my stance clear with what I was trying to build on the training pitch and within the squad and I’m grateful that the owners have been in alignment with me in terms of their thinking.

I think what they’ve shown is that they’ve been consistent in their actions and strong in their actions. Naturally, it’s difficult for me to comment in detail because matters with Djilobodji and Ndong will take some time to resolve completely. But, I think it’s a statement of intent with how we want to try and progress the club and take it forward. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m fortunate that their thoughts have been in alignment with mine.

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Did Ndong train at all?

No. I think the situation had developed far beyond that.

Like I said, my dialogue and involvement with not only the player but any representative, I was going to say minimal, but it had been pretty much non-existent.

Which again, I’m grateful for because it allowed me to concentrate on what I had here, which I said from day one that what I had in this building was what I really had to concentrate on making better.

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Were you tempted to use Ndong?

No, not from my side as a manager.

I think to try and develop or create a culture within your club, I know culture is used as a buzz word in football nowadays, but its relative, it’s relative in all walks of life, it’s not an easy thing to do. It can very easily be tipped the other way, I’m not casting aspersions on that one individual player to say he would do that.

But, equally, I think we’ve done well to build a spirit within that group in a short period of time and we don’t want to come away from that.

These players that have been here from day one have been incredibly committed. The ones we’ve brought to the club have bought into exactly the same work ethic and we want to grow it.

Its important that we do that in order to try and get the club back through the leagues.

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On Methven’s comments about the supporters...

I think naturally for me as a manager, I would always like as many home supporters in our stadium on a fortnightly basis or whenever we’re playing at home because it goes without saying that it helps us enormously when they’re behind us. I think we’ve seen that already in-home games this season.

There’s always an economic argument with how often fans can get to games and I’m acutely aware of that as well. But, the numbers they have turned out in to home games this season has been absolutely remarkable. I know that’s been supported by some of the stats that have come out recently with average attendances across European leagues, never mind across teams. Where our home attendance sits within that, to be approaching 30,000 or around that mark as an average attendance is incredibly really. It wouldn’t be replicated at very many clubs right across Europe.

So, for me, it’s very simple again. I just want to keep encouraging as many of them back as we can and I think if we continue to progress as we have done so far, I’m sure we’ll see us keep that up, which Is fantastic considering the league we find ourselves in.

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On team bonding activities...

I think what’s happened to the club under new ownership is that there’s definitely been a shift towards re-engagement with supporters right across the club. They’ve obviously worked hard at that as owners, I think that can be seen on a weekly basis in various ways.

As a manager, not just because I’m here now, but if you go back to my previous jobs I’ve always been happy to do that. Sometimes players need a little bit of encouragement to do that, particularly with how things have went here recently as well. But, with us doing that and setting the tone of it, players are now buying into that involvement within the fans base and the community. The footage that you mentioned and the day you mentioned, just helps foster that relationship.

Without it, it’s very difficult to progress your club, I think we can overlook that a bit in the modern game. But, there’s a few good golfers in amongst that group to be fair and I don’t think that was the strongest ones that were selected. But, it’s encouraging that players are happy to take part in events like that as well.

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On Saturday’s game...

It’s just very much reflective of the commitment and loyalty of the fan base. I’ve been able to see that from very early in my tenure here with the number of season tickets we sold. The numbers that I’ve already spoken about that have attended home games and the numbers that have travelled.

For all the reasons you’ve just listed there, the timing of the game, it been on television and the distance involved in terms of travelling, to take around 5,000 fans is just remarkable. But, with that comes expectation. I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from that, as a manager I’m happy to take that on and its important my players take that on.

We go to Coventry on Saturday representing those 5,000 people that have made that effort to travel. It should give you that extra drive and motivation to go and produce that result for them. There’s no better feeling in football than celebrating with such a travelling support as that. It is remarkable. It’s not patronising to say that, I think the fact sheets speak for themselves in that. To take that number of fans to an away game in those circumstances is terrific.

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On the expectations for the game...

I usually sit here and say difficult because it’s an easy to give, but all of our games have been this season, both home and away. They’ve been really challenging for a variety of reasons and I think we’ve also learnt in this league that the previous weeks result for a team doesn’t always reflect upon their performance when we go and play them. We’ve seen that already on a couple of occasions where teams have then produced a good performance, I’m not saying that’s just because of us but it’s just the nature of this league.

So, another tough game, we’re away from home which is obviously on paper, always more challenging than been at home. But, we’re going into it on the back of an encouraging performance and also going into it with almost a fully fit squad, as we spoke about earlier.

So, these things help me as a manager. A group of players that have trained really well this week, the mood, the confidence, the positivity around the group never diminished after the Burton game and it’s encouraging to see that continue. I look forward to them taking that into the performance.

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On Max Power being available...

It’s nice to have him available again. To lose him for three/four games was unfortunate, also for Max individually because his form had been good, but also, he had a little bit of a stop start pre-season because of his lack of involvement at Wigan and how late he came to us at the end of the window.

What it does is that it gives us great options for this week ahead because I don’t think we can ignore the fact that we’ve got three games this week. Obviously, a tough away game on Saturday then followed by a really big game on Tuesday against Peterborough, before the weekend’s fixture again. So, we’re going to have to utilise that squad in those games and having Max available in that area of the pitch gives not only options for Saturday, but for Tuesday as well.

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On the start the team has made...

In my head I probably wanted us to be where we are or even better because it’s just how I am nature wise. But, when I said about it being a bumpy ride it wasn’t self-preservation, it was genuinely my feeling because of everything that had happened at the club over the summer and even when we spoke at that time, it was far from the squad that we have in place now.

So, to be where we are is encouraging because I do think we will get better. We’ve shown signs of that already that we’ve progressed and even having that knock of the defeat, our reaction to that has been encouraging. Also, those players coming back towards full fitness, you can classify Aiden in that as well, Aiden McGeady. He’s been out for four months and he’s only really recently been involved in the squad. But, having the likes of Aiden and Duncan Watmore, when he’s fully fit, these players coming back to strengthen our squad is terrific.

So, encouraging. It’s given us a solid platform, but we’ve just got to continue to do that because it is a relentless league in terms of the challenges it provides.

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On Duncan Watmore’s progress...

He’s joined in this week with me, just about all of my sessions. We’ve tailored some of it to suit him as well, but it’s another big step forward for him. Previous to that, he’d been joining in on little bits and pieces, but this week he’s done more or less the same as everyone else with the exception of a couple of different drills. So, he’s getting ever closer.

I think I said last week that there’s a duty of care from us to make sure we don’t rush him back. But, psychologically another really good week for him. He feels good and he’s had no reaction. I think he believes that he’s in a better place this time than when he came back from the first injury and having him back, it will be a real asset to us as well. He’s popular within the group as well, so mentally for the group to see him back involved is a big plus for us.

I’ve never wanted to do it because I’ve never wanted to put pressure on him. I think when he came back from the previous one, there was a real need to get him back because of the way the results were going. I’m not saying it’s because things are going ok, that’s why we’re not rushing him. I just think we’ve got a duty of care on his career development and he’s still a young man. That’s two tough injuries he’s had and that takes it toll mentally on you as well.

So, I think he’s appreciated that approach. But, equally, on the flip side of that, everything is pointing to him being in a really good place. Any examinations we’ve had done, coupled with everything we do internally, he’s in a really strong place. That’s why I’m happy for him, whenever he’s progressing, even this week, we didn’t know for certain that he’d get through as much as he did. We kind of just did it on a day-to-day basis, so it’s really encouraging signs for him.

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On Max Power’s act of kindness to a fan...

It’s not something that you can recruit on that basis or it’s not something that you can say that it’s a certainty to happen, but I think you get a feel for them. You do as much homework as you can when you recruit and then you get a feel for players when you meet them.

We have managed to put together a squad. There’s a good blend of certain types of characters. One, are really grateful to be here and really appreciate the surroundings and what they have at their disposal and also have that grounded touch. The relationship between certain parts of the game has broken to a degree in recent times. Not just between players and supporters, but sometimes managers and media, players and media, all those different facets.

Listen, you’re going to fall out at times and you’re going to see things differently. But, equally, we’re all working in it or go and watch it because we love the game. I think it’s important to remember that, so instances like that with Max, that’s just Max as a guy. He’s a really good guy, very popular within the group, good on the training pitch and the type he is.

I don’t think he did it to generate publicity, I think he did it because he saw a Sunderland fan and thought why don’t I pick him up and take him to the game? I think it’s refreshing to see as well.