Back in late July, after watching most pre-season games and leaving the Stadium of Light feeling underwhelmed after defeat to Heerenveen, I was convinced the writing was on the wall for Jack Ross.
I tend to agree with the sentiment that too much shouldn’t be taken from pre-season results, however, the defensive fragility and inability to create more than one or two chances throughout the warm up games made it clear to me that lessons were not learned from last seasons failure.
Whilst failure is a strong word, I don’t think anybody can reasonably argue that it was anything other. Yes, there was a huge turnover to contend with, both back office and playing staff, but Sunderland had by far and away the largest pool of resources to bounce back. Had even the 93rd minute winner at Wembley been scored by one of the men in black, it would have still felt like Sunderland did it the hard way.
I’m not entitled and I haven’t got ideas above my station when I say Sunderland should not be in League One. We absolutely deserve to be, but we shouldn’t be. Sunderland in stature are not outside of the top forty four clubs in England, there’s an argument to say we’re one of the top ten, on all time awards, fan base, notoriety. To finish fifth in the third tier, or forty ninth in England, or the lowest in the club’s history, that is a failure.
Yes Barnsley, Luton and Charlton were full value for their promotion, but it was Jack Ross and his coaching team’s inability to get the best out of a squad that had more talent and experience, including considerable international experience, that ensured Sunderland were not one of that three.
Whilst the players don’t escape without a fair portion of blame for sub-par performances, inability to score goals and defensive howlers, the bottom line is that a common denominator linked the all too inevitable failings.
Will Grigg didn’t become the cult figure he is by not scoring a hat full of important goals in League One and the European Championships, Max Power was far from pedestrian in Wigan’s promotion campaign and McGeouch was rated as one of the top midfield prospects out of Scotland, yet at times was unable to even get in the first team squad.
No magic spell, no curse, no rotten core, just a group of players who either couldn’t understand what the manager was trying to implement on the training field and Saturday afternoon, or that the managers system did not fit the players at his disposal.
It’s clear the latter was the case.
This is where Jack Ross should shoulder a fair amount of responsibility. Firstly, as somebody I have no doubt is a good coach with a progressive style of playing, he was unable to modify his system and coaching to get the best out of the players available to him, which leads into the second point.
Regardless of his role in transfers, Ross would have had a considerable influence on who the club recruited and didn’t, ten of the eleven starting players in his final game in charge, or sixteen of the eighteen in his match day squad, were all signed under his reign. Ross had three transfer windows to shape his squad, and if anything, the performances actually seemed to be worsening, rather than improving.
It’s not a secret that pressure from both inside and outside the club began to mount on Jack Ross shoulders post Wembley-Charlton heartbreak, and whilst it would have been fantastic to have our own Eddie Howe or Chris Wilder, propelling Sunderland from the League One doldrums to Premier League stardom, the sentiment falls down when the results don’t match that dream.
As it stands, Sunderland are barely on track for the Play-Offs, are forecasted to worsen last season’s finish and crucially, as Stewart Donald said himself, are not on course for automatic promotion.
Jack Ross is by all accounts a good man. He’s clearly a good coach, demonstrated with his success in Scotland and the development of younger players, seen in the likes of Hume, O’Nien, and most notably, the rise of Josh Maja. There’s no surprise Maja’s hot form has stalled now that he no longer receives the attentive coaching and development of Jack Ross and his team.
Despite the fact it didn’t work out, Ross carried out his role with great respect and accountability, traits missing in recent incumbents.
Rather than his legacy being one of failure it should be one of a decent man who oversaw a period of immense instability, offered two cup final weekends in London which live far longer in the memory than a defeat to Lincoln, and most pertinently, built a pathway from the academy directly to the first team which should lay the foundation for further academy success in the years to come.