When the final whistle blew on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln the unnerving suspicions that I’ve held for a while now regarding Jack Ross and Sunderland became more apparent than ever - that he simply may not be the man to take this club forward over the long term and, perhaps more worrying, that he is not on course to get this side promoted out of League One this season.
I actually resent writing that, because for a long while I felt that Jack Ross was the man to carry us out of the third tier, and possibly higher. Straight away you could see the tremendous upside of hiring a young, intelligent and ambitious manager at a time when we could afford to hit the reset button and try a new approach.
At first it worked. Despite playing practically half a season with a smaller squad, Ross had us playing in a style that not only got results but got the best out of his best centre forward in Josh Maja. We pressed high, worked incredibly hard on and off the ball, and were clinical in front of goal. Ross found a way to make it work before January rolled around - and whilst the performances weren’t always scintillating, we did still play some genuinely decent stuff, particularly against good sides like Luton, Barnsley and Peterborough.
Yet, as the season drew on, we regressed. We stopped doing many of the things that had previously excited supporters - the January window came, and at a time when we really ought to have kicked on, our football got worse and we threw away numerous golden opportunities to solidify a position in the top two.
The decision to sell our top scorer was not a wise one, but replacing him with a big money, proven centre forward in Will Grigg and the returning Charlie Wyke should have seen us at least maintain the goalscoring standards that we had earlier in the season.
Despite having, in my opinion, the best squad in the division - including the league’s best goalkeeper, and a talented, seasoned winger in Aiden McGeady - we played some pretty awful football. Mentally we looked largely spent - Ross’s side and their penchant for a 1-1 draw saw us tail off in a promotion race that we really should have been leading from the off.
The way we ended last season was incredibly disappointing, and there were many supporters who felt that Ross should have gone after we squandered away promotion in both the final run towards the end of the season and then in the Play-Off Final.
I spoke to an old mate on my way out of Wembley who, with emotions running high, told me Ross should be sacked that night for the way he had presided over Sunderland’s massive drop in standards, and subsequent failed promotion back to the Championship. It made me uncomfortable, because the events of that day really felt like a strong kick in the gut, and what had seemed like an inevitable promotion for a number of months was ripped away from us in the most heartbreaking fashion possible. The last thing I wanted to do was point the finger - I just wanted a hole to swallow me up.
What became apparent was that the way we had ended the season had seriously harmed Jack’s relationship with a significant portion of the supporters. Not once this season has it felt like the fanbase has been united in the way that it perhaps was this time last year, and that is significant. By the same token, the players on the pitch look like they’ve lost some of their hunger, and I can’t help but wonder how much the current manager has to do with the mood around the place.
Would a change enable Sunderland to kick on and eventually get promoted? Is it still possible even now that Jack Ross could get us out of League One, even by stumbling through the required amount of victories to ensure we do it? Will it just eventually click if we wait long enough for it to happen? These are all questions that I couldn’t give answers to with any certainty. The doubt that I feel in my gut regarding Jack Ross and his coaching staff is palpable, though, and even the most ardent Ross supporters would struggle to mount a convincing case for allowing him to carry on in his job.
Those like me who were previously unconvinced but were prepared to give Ross another chance may now have had enough themselves. They, like me, can now reluctantly admit that we are seriously compromising our chances of promotion if we continue to stick by a manager who clearly isn’t getting the most out of a squad that, on paper, should have more than enough to be a top two contender, and dominate the majority of the teams at this level who are operating on a fraction of the budget that we are.
That Lincoln performance and result felt like an end point. I’m not particularly keen on shouting for a manager to be sacked but I’m now undeniably worried that Sunderland’s owner, Stewart Donald, is making a huge mistake in sticking by a manager who has shown for a while now that he’s not performing to an adequate level in his job, who is struggling to build runs of convincing wins and is, perhaps most importantly, failing to unite everyone involved with the club as we look to achieve our common goal of promotion.
I’d love to be wrong here, but now feels like the right time to make a change. While the season still has plenty of time left to run, and we are still in a decent enough position whereby a new man could galvanise the supporters and players, I believe that we really ought to seriously consider the possibility of finding a new manager.