Personality. Character. Favourite phrases of modern-day managers, players, and analysts. Often used when describing a gutsy draw, a noble defeat or a grind-it-out victory, these words have become firmly embedded in modern-day football parlance, regularly to the point of becoming cliched.
This leads me to the question of: how important are these traits when managing a club like ours? Does the Stadium of Light demand a buoyant, ebullient character capable of filling the entire club with optimism and calling the shots from the home dugout, or is it possible for a more reserved, low-key manager - as we currently have in Jack Ross - to achieve success?
It is fair to say that, since we moved into our current home in the summer of 1997, we have ran the gamut of managerial personalities with varying degrees of success.
Quite clearly the benchmark over an extended period of time remains Peter Reid. Reid’s teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s were built in his image. Self-confident, laden with swagger and charisma, but with a healthy dose of steel and toughness. With his fist-pumps on the touchline and his penchant for fruity language during team talks, the Sunderland job fitted Reid like a glove. He was undoubtedly the right man for the job at that time.
Following Reid - and overlooking the ill-fated reign of Howard Wilkinson - the grit of Mick McCarthy did, despite the club’s less-than-stable state from 2003 to 2006, have an impact. McCarthy’s straight-talking ways and obvious passion were well-received, and I doubt that there are many fans who would speak negatively of the man even to this day.
The summer of 2006 following McCarthy’s departure and our subsequent relegation was an important chapter in our recent history. Niall Quinn arrived backed by Drumaville. We all know what happened next.
I’ve always maintained that Roy Keane’s impact on the club was due in no small part to sheer force of personality. He grabbed the entire Sunderland community, club and fans alike, by the arm, and said, “I’m going to the Premier League, and you’re coming with me.”
For two years, it worked. We believed again.
He was undoubtedly connected with the fans and was clearly very proud to manage our club. It did end badly in 2008, but perhaps with the highly-driven Keane a short-term, explosive tenure rather than a long-term reign, it was always on the cards.
In the wake of Steve Bruce’s widely-celebrated 2011 exit, albeit with a tenth-place finish to show for it, the appointment of Martin O’Neill felt perfect. The boyhood Sunderland fan. The man who had achieved success with Leicester and Celtic, and was known for his articulate style and man-management skills. The touchline passion was there, the exuberance clearly visible - but, sadly, consistent results did not follow.
The list of Sunderland managers post-O’Neill reads like a case study in ‘men who ought to have been able to achieve things but ultimately didn’t’. Di Canio? Fiery, but never appearing totally in control. Poyet? Charismatic, with a memorable League Cup final to show for it. Advocaat? Dignified and shrewd. Allardyce? Arrogant and swaggering. The perfect fit, or so it seemed. Moyes? No words needed.
Each manager tried, most gave us something memorable, but all except Allardyce left the club sapped and scarred by what had happened.
It is obvious that Jack Ross will never ooze charisma, but the Stadium of Light, when full, is one hell of a sight for the eyes and a hell of a sound for the ears. It is undoubtedly a place where shrinking violets, managers and players alike will over time be ruthlessly exposed.
Ross’s penchant for standing stock-still on the touchline, hands in pockets, is perhaps not the best image for a manager who is in charge of what many fans consider to be the ‘biggest’ club in League One, but at the same time we cannot force the man to be someone he is not. If results and performances were to pick up under Ross, would we be able to excuse his somewhat bland demeanour?
Some well-respected and much-loved managers have stood in Ross’s spot over the past twenty-two years. At the moment it is his office. Perhaps the solution, under a flamboyant future manager, will be to turn it into something resembling a stage from which he can cajole and rally his charges on to greater heights.