Sunderland are second in League One for the first time since the end of November and within spitting distance of earning automatic promotion, but despite that I still hear fans discussing whether Jack Ross is good enough to manage the club.
I am convinced it’s a minority of fans. Surely it has to be. Common sense and the evidence of the league table reassures me it must be the case, but nevertheless the criticism confounds me.
Following the Checkatrade Trophy final there was much bewilderment over the tactics Jack Ross employed, but specifically the substitution of Will Grigg and the absence then of a recognised striker on the pitch. Bewilderment ensued. Explanations followed as they so often do from Jack Ross - some, however, refused to accept his reflections.
One fan approached Ross on King’s Cross station on Monday morning and despite Jack Ross taking the time to try and explain his decisions, the fan laboured under the misapprehension he was dealing with an idiot. Ross, to his credit, told the fan in no uncertain terms to go away.
He understandably was left perplexed that someone who has never managed a football team could get so vexed over one substitution.
Ross is the first to accept he is fallible and will make mistakes and is also well aware fans are entitled to an opinion - an opinion which can be critical, but we seem now to be living in an era in which the level of debate has descended into a miasma of ill-informed nonsense fuelled by the ease with which social media affords people a platform.
A caller to BBC Newcastle’s ‘Total Sport’ before the Burton Albion match reassured me that there remains a sane backbone when he talked about his bemusement at something Ross had done in a game but rather than jump off the deep end he took a deep breath and waited for Jack Ross’ explanation.
There sometimes seems to be a perception that a manager just throws his cards in the air and picks a random team with no thought to its rationale, when in reality a week has been spent preparing the team and the tactics with such thoroughness there is no margin for error. What happens on the pitch is to a large extent then in the lap of the gods. What people on the outside fail to see is the day to day demeanour of the players, in training and in the Academy - aspects of management with which Jack Ross is very astute.
His handling of Aiden McGeady this season is a good example of his man management.
One of the reasons for McGeady’s impressive form is Ross bringing the Republic of Ireland international onside, embracing his ability and handing him responsibility, empowering McGeady and making him feel an integral part of the team. Jack Baldwin spoke with purring admiration post-Burton of how Jack Ross had handled dropping him earlier in the season, and Dylan McGeouch likewise when I spoke to him after the drama of the win at Rochdale.
This is all the unseen work that goes on behind the scenes on a daily basis.
Jack Ross is at his desk by 7:30 every morning and his dedication to Sunderland is unstinting. Criticism levelled at him sometimes seems churlish - almost criticism just for criticism’s sake. As I said before, Jack Ross will always offer an explanation when asked and as often as not his answer is thorough and logical.
The accusation made by some that Ross is not good enough to manage in League One for me defies belief. Sunderland’s record this season stands up to scrutiny.
Two league defeats; no home defeats; the third best goal difference in the league.
Too many draws is one of the favourite criticisms. Seventeen this season, seven more than Luton - but Ross is at pains to point out the reasons why and while we may not necessarily agree with his reasoning - and there is unquestionably a valid debate to be held as to whether he could have been braver in his tactics in some of those drawn games - there are also some mitigating factors.
As an example, who could have foreseen how easily Dunne would get bundled off the ball by Sinclair at Oxford which led to their equaliser? Those are the factors in games over which the manager has no control, and as Jack Ross is at pains to point out his squad is a League One squad, largely thrown together in the summer.
Its constituent parts are largely made up of League One players who are by definition flawed, otherwise they would be playing higher up. It is to Jack Ross’ credit he has melded together an eclectic squad and injected a remarkable team spirit and harmony into a dressing room which we know has in the past been divided.
So - while no manager is exempt from criticism let’s at least have a debate based on fact and not fuelled by frustration and anger. There’s not a lot wrong at the moment. Sunderland are second, with six matches left and destiny very much in their own hands but one can’t help feeling that Barnsley will slip up again, and with the resolve the team has shown since Wembley I still believe Sunderland will be promoted and with breathing space.
In Jack Ross, Sunderland has a bright young (ish!) manager whose commitment to the club is unquestionable, and whose ambition will take Sunderland a long way.