The sale of Josh Maja
Once Josh Maja made it clear he would not be signing a new contract, Sunderland had two options - sell, or make the young striker see out the reminder of his contract and lose him for nothing.
Whilst I understand Ross didn’t make the decision himself, the club’s decision to cash in of Maja proved to be fundamental in Sunderland’s failure to secure automatic promotion.
We don’t know for certain, but had Maja stayed until the summer I reckon Sunderland would have secured wins rather than draws at vital points throughout the season.
What is frustrating is that Maja contributed very little in his time at Bordeaux last season - did the club look to sell Maja and take him back on loan for the remainder of the campaign?
Perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know is that Sunderland are yet to find a suitable replacement. Grigg, Wyke, McNulty and Watmore have scored less league goals between them in a Sunderland shirt than the 15 Maja scored at the beginning of the 2018-19 season.
The Checkatrade Trophy final
If you’d asked Sunderland supporters at the beginning of the 2018-19 season whether a Wembley appearance in the Checkatrade Trophy final would be a target, undoubtedly, the majority would have said no. Even when we progressed to the quarter final stage only 14,671 turned out as Sunderland were victors over Manchester City U21s.
When the final came, finally Sunderland fans were engaged. The clamour for tickets, the repeat of Trafalgar Square antics of 2014 - fans had realised they were on the cusp of some success. It was a trophy, irrespective of its title, or lack of grandeur.
Ultimately, Sunderland suffered their 6th successive Wembley defeat against one of their main promotion rivals. Whilst Ross saw this competition as an opportunity for success, the psychological pain attached to Wembley loss, coupled with the extra games, saw Sunderland fall away towards the end of the season.
The trophy final proved to be a huge distraction to the number one goal, promotion. Ultimately, the Wembley hangover was one the team never recovered from.
The Coventry defeat (Match day 41)
With five league games to go promotion was still in Sunderland’s hands, lying second in the table when play off chasing Coventry rolled into town.
No one could have predicted what happened that day. 3-1 down after 25 minutes, Sunderland willfully fought their way back to be drawing 3-3, then 4-4, with Conor Chaplin completing the scoring to complete an unlikely win for the visitors.
Despite the resilience shown on the day, this result ultimately marked the final stage of the eventual downward spiral which saw Sunderland finish 5th.
For me, that day saw belief being drained from Ross’s squad just at the worst time.
The Play Off final
Following the 5th place finish, again Sunderland showed their determination and resilience in getting past Portsmouth in the semi-finals. Jack Ross got his tactics spot on in both games, and Sunderland were heading to Wembley once more.
Only this time, it was different.
The performances, results, the EFL Trophy final defeat, or maybe just cash flow problems - it was strangely evident that Sunderland fans were just not as ‘up for it’ as they were two months prior. I never thought I would see it but Sunderland even failed to sell out their Wembley allocation.
The night prior, Trafalgar Square did not have the same atmosphere, and the atmosphere in the stadium was mediocre at best. There’s a theory in psychology literature called the CORF effect where, as humans we cut off from reflected failure - our experiences mean we disassociate ourselves from that failure as a coping mechanism.
I believe the Sunderland fans and players had done that before a ball was even kicked. There was no reflection needed. The team, the manager and the fans were still punch drunk from a long, hard season. Ultimately, Patrick Bauer’s last minute winner turned out to be the most ‘Sunderland’ thing that could have happened.
After the play off final defeat to Charlton in 1998 I remember the most rousing, assuring and inspiring interview ever given by a footballer. Niall Quinn, still in his kit, came out and assured fans the squad WOULD be promoted the following season.
Sure enough, Sunderland won the league at a canter.
I didn’t hear this from Jack Ross, or any of his players. It was about devastation, tiredness, and bad luck. The writing was on the wall, for me.
The main rallying cry in regards to the 2019-20 season was a comment made by Sunderland’s owners that we’d be targetting 100 points this season - it was ill-advised to quantify a target, I’d say. When Niall Quinn said we’d get promoted, we could have finished 6th and been on the right end of a Play Off final - Sunderland fans were judging that squad on going up.
In 2019, fans have a whole range of statistics to judge their team by. A 100-point season would average out as 2.27 points per game (44 games). A vast improvement on 1.84 achieved in the 2018-19 season (46 games). At the time of his sacking Ross was on an average of 1.72 (19 points from 11 games), meaning he needed 2.45 points per game for the rest of the season to achieve the 100 point target. The 100-point target ultimately became a target on Ross’ head, metaphorically speaking. He was a sitting duck.
Transfer deadline day - unbalanced squad
Given the multiple transfer deadline days, the whole summer transfer window was a bit of a mess. At Sunderland, the wage bill had been trimmed just as far as it could be, with only Lynden Gooch and Duncan Watmore surviving from the Premier League days.
The problem is that our squad is still unbalanced - a misfiring strike force, a rookie left back, a right back that had played his entire career in the number 10 role, an abundance of midfielders and seemingly no space for promising academy graduates in Robson and Embleton.
For the vast resources Ross had at his disposal, his squad was lopsided and lacking experience in key areas. Whilst Burge, Willis and Lynch should prove to be successes at Sunderland, the lack of perceived quality and experience has cost Ross at the beginning of the 2019-20 season.
Due to these issues in the squad, coupled with his ambition to avoid too many draws, Ross essentially wasted his pre season with a 3-5-2 formation experiment which was never going to work. We didn’t have enough full backs in the squad, never mind any full backs that could play wing back. I commend him for dropping the idea so quickly but he has been playing catch up ever since, and didn’t look like fixing the clean sheet issue any time soon.
The league defeats
The argument of performances versus results is contested every Saturday afternoon up and down the land. By its nature football can throw up poor performances which win games, or great performances which result in losses.
For Ross, there were simply no signs of progress from last season. The early season draws at home to Oxford and away to Ipswich could be excused, however as the season has developed those poor performances have continued. Whilst the vitriol after the Peterborough defeat was mainly aimed at the referee, the shocking performance at Bolton meant the blame shifted squarely towards Jack Ross.
Chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “you’re getting sacked in the morning” evidently hurt Jack Ross. At the end of the game, Ross decided not to approach and clap the 4000 away fans as he normally would. Instead, he headed straight down the tunnel, the away section noticed this, and it did not prove popular. Whilst I did not make it to the Lincoln game, by all reports the performance was worse than the one against Bolton, and even the victories against Sheffield United and MK Dons in between could disguise it.
The team that Jack Ross has left is devoid of direction - the form of Jon McLaughlin in a prime example of this. Luke O’Nien to left back and Joel Lynch up top in our last league outing was a sign that Ross had finally started to accept defeat. At the same time, by all accounts, the away support left the ground sombre, with little emotion.
I guess we all knew it was just a matter of time – the CORF effect had struck again.