A couple of weeks ago, I was coming out of my local snooker club when my partner, Lynsey, saw an old friend. Pleasantries were exchanged and quickly the conversation turned to Sunderland.
He had been to Bolton the weekend before and immediately let us know, quickly followed by a fury-filled expression of outrage about Jack Ross. “He’s had 71 games now, you know,” was his final qualifying point in what he genuinely believed to be a crushing indictment of the Sunderland manager.
Now, Lynsey is the kind of person who knows a lot of people. She’s the outgoing, bubbly type who attracts friends and considering she was brought up following Sunderland around the country every week, this kind of chance-meeting with fellow fans happens often. I generally just quietly stand back and allow old acquaintances to reunite.
On this occasion, though, I think I was generally in a bit of a bad mood anyway, I decided to involve myself with a simple question: “And of those 71 matches,” I replied, “how many has he lost? Do you need one hand or two hands to count them?”
The answer was nine, by the way, although I didn’t get one from him before Lynsey ushered us towards the exit.
In truth, it was just a case of frustration boiling to the surface in two fans who share a passion but not an opinion. Nothing wrong with that at all. None of this means I am right and anyone else is wrong, and asserting such a position is by no means the purpose of this. I am just one fan with one opinion, exactly the same as everyone else.
Every time I open social media, I am reminded in pretty stark fashion, that there is a significant swell of belief that Jack Ross is not the man to take Sunderland forward. I respect those views, but don’t agree with them.
And here, in the form of answers to the most common replies I get on social media when I back Ross, are my reasons.
“So you’re not allowed to criticise Jack Ross, then?”
Yes, absolutely you are. Who said you’re not? If anyone has directly told you that, ignore them as they are quite clearly idiots. There is a lot that Ross does that invites criticism. I’ve never known a Sunderland manager who was not criticised, actually.
From my point of view, though, I see a lot of unfairness in the criticisms. Is it fair for a manager, for example, to go into a press conference ahead of a game in which he is chasing his sixth win in seven matches, to have to field questions about falling short of expectations? No don’t believe so, personally.
I don’t know how Bolton are supposedly nothing more than a bunch of kids straight out of the youth team when they had two players that we all watched playing in the Premier League for us, either. But that is how they have been branded to justify criticisms for not managing to beat them. It was, I accept, a very poor performance, but I don’t accept the context which, to me, looks deliberately manipulated to fit the agenda.
Other criticisms, I find very fair and I agree with completely. The lack of clean sheets, for one, the failure to get anything like the best from Will Grigg, for another. There are more too, but the point is that, yes, of course anyone is ‘allowed’ to criticise Ross, but everyone is ‘allowed’ to criticise your criticisms of Ross too.
People, like me, should be just as ‘allowed’ to defend and back Ross though too, remember.
“So it’s unreasonable to expect Sunderland to win matches in League One then?”
No, not at all. A club like Sunderland shouldn’t even be in League One. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the club at this level.
However, we are at this level for the same reason as everyone else – because we are not good enough to be at a higher level – and I think we should therefore be showing League One a lot more respect than many fans do.
A third of the teams competing in this season’s Premier League have been in League One at some point during the last 12 years, as have, at the time of writing, eight of the top half of the Championship. No one wants to see Sunderland in League One but it’s hardly the Sunday League that many seem to want to make it out to be.
And, more to the point, Sunderland are winning games in League One. Not as many as we want to be, or need to be, or arguably should be, but we are not drowning either. There is a platform there. Hopefully we can take the next step and use it.
“But with the players we have we should be DOMINATING League One!”
I may be going mad but, Aiden McGeady, Jordan Willis and, possibly Joel Lynch aside, I don’t see a huge amount of higher-level quality in the Sunderland squad right now.
Grant Leadbitter has been before, but his legs have gone. Important players for Sunderland such as Max Power, and Marc McNulty has specifically failed to make an impact at Championship clubs and been cut loose. Jon McLaughlin has had one season at Championship level and one in the SPL.
Chris Maguire is often cited as an established player at Championship level but was only ever a regular of any sort for two seasons and came to Sunderland on the back of Oxford, who were in League Two for the bulk of his games, and Bury, who were relegated from League One. He is better than that, but he certainly isn’t anything even remotely resembling an established Championship force.
All I see at Sunderland is a League One squad playing in League One - a good one, but I think we’d all be wanting some pretty major investment next summer if we are planning for a Championship campaign.
“So you’re happy with Sunderland being in League One, then?”
No, obviously not. No one is, no matter how much they disagree with you over the causes that see us in League One. You are not some kind of singularly-gifted visionary among fools and sole protector of the club’s standards.
We all share the same frustrations, we just vary in our analysis of the causes and the patience we apply to them.
“So it’s the fans’ fault we didn’t win, then?”
No, and this one is probably the most frustrating response to defence of Jack Ross. For me, there is no ‘fault’ to not winning, whether that’s Ross or the fans or whoever, because there is no divine right to win matches. No set of football fans are owed wins, no matter the club. None.
The way I see it, and again I want to stress that this is just my opinion and I am not forcing it on anyone nor insisting it is agreed with, is that we are a stronger and better club when we are united.
Boiling it all down to an ‘us v them,’ or ‘us v him’ isn’t healthy for the club. You win as a club and you lose as a club, and Sunderland have won far more than they have lost under Ross.
When that becomes inverted, there is a bigger problem, but that’s not the case yet.
The expectations on Ross should be high. I absolutely agree with that. But surely that creates an appreciation that the margins involved are resultantly much smaller?
So is it the fans’ ‘fault’ that the club don’t win more – and more convincingly - under Ross? Absolutely not. But I also don’t think that he has been given a fair level of patience by those who angrily, and quite abusively, calling for him to be sacked and so I certainly don’t support their viewpoint.
“Look at Ipswich, they are showing how easy it is!”
Fair play to Ipswich, but let’s not pretend they are the norm. Other big clubs have come down to League One and struggled. Leeds and Nottingham Forest were in if for three seasons, for example.
But also, it’s tough to directly compare clubs sometimes because they are all so different. I can’t really assess other clubs’ various situations, but I know a club in free-fall is a lot harder to turn around than one on a slow decline like Ipswich were.
We know how big a state Sunderland were in. We all watched it, felt it, broke our hearts over it. The problems were colossal so the challenges bigger. That means the fixes are probably slower. Perhaps not in an ideal world, but on the balance of probability, and I try not to judge people based on best case scenarios.
So, take it or leave it, agree with it or disagree with it, but please don’t tell me that no one can possibly have any reason to back Ross.