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Fan Letters: “Why do we keep on pumping long balls forward to Sunderland’s small forwards?!”

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“I can’t understand why Ross has them pumping balls at height in to the box when we do not possess a target man - he did the same last season” says RR reader Roger. Got something to say? Email us: RokerReport@Yahoo.co.uk!

Danny Roberts

Dear Roker Report,

Hoping this won’t be too long a letter but need to get some stuff of my chest. First of all, I’m not Ross out (yet). I recognise the poor state our club was undoubtedly in when he was appointed. He has only had one season and I acknowledge that in normal cases I’d be jumping the gun to even suggest we should change tact.

My issue with Ross has multiple strands to it. Firstly, we have been bang average pretty much every game he’s been in charge. I can count on one hand the games where we’ve looked better than that (Accrington away springs to mind) but aside from that, we never looked like a team good enough for promotion. Sure, results said different, and we were a game away from the Championship, but I defy anyone to name me a game out of the 60+ he’s been in charge where we truly looked like a Luton or a Barnsley.

Secondly, our squad is a lot better than the performances have shown them to be. Before anyone tells me we have a League One squad and should expect League One performances, you cannot tell me for one second that Power, Grigg, Oviedo, McGeouch, Leadbitter, Wyke and Flanagan are not at all better than what they showed us last season. Of course, this is not only the manager’s fault, as players are responsible for their own performances too. Equally, there were certain mitigating circumstances such as injury and fatigue that meant certain players were not at their best. My argument is that if someone like Ryan Lowe, Daniel Stendel or Lee Bowyer were in charge of these exact players, I have full confidence they would produce better results.

Am I guilty of having a divine right attitude? Not one bit. There is an astronomical difference between throwing a tantrum simply because we didn’t go up and criticising our poor tactics and average performances. If we had put in similar performances to Luton or Barnsley all of last season and finished on the exact same points, I would not be nearly as disgruntled as I am at the moment. Individual quality pulled us to the playoff final last season. Maja, McGeady and Maguire were all clinical and we picked up so so many points when we didn’t deserve them - an unnatural amount. Almost every stat in the book told us we should’ve been mid table last campaign, and that tells you something is off.

So, am I Ross out? Not yet. But if performances stay at this level over the next few games, I am really not sure I can defend him any longer.

Alex Gardner

Ed’s Note [Damian]: I would say that’s a fair approach to take, Alex, though I disagree to some extent on one or two points.

Firstly, you’ve quite rightly stated that a Ross has had a relatively short tenure to date, at least by comparison to many stable clubs in a similar position. In the grand scheme of his role the amount of influence he has had, while not limited, hasn’t encompassed all that it might with slightly more time on his side; his new-look squad and the formation in which he gains the most from them.

The team he’s working with now contains four new players and at least two young players that were around the team last season, rather than in it. With that in mind we’re looking at a new and different team from that which engaged in our recently failed campaign, with a new formation to boot. So when you say that we’ve looked bang average every game he’s been in charge, while it may have been true of us last season, I don’t believe that necessarily carries through to this. For myself I thought we looked better than average against Oxford, and though it’s obviously a work in progress I saw clear progression and improvement. Perhaps that is merely a result of the introduction of fresh faces, we don’t yet now.

Of course it can’t be denied that his tactics took a big hand in costing us last season, but I have to query the use of the word “negative” as so many fans are wont to use. It stems from watching Sunderland fight for a point rather than commit to victory or defeat, and it can be argued on paper that losing some and winning some is better than drawing half. Only if you do actually win that other half, though. Think about what happens when you lose a game - you gift points to your opponent whilst denying them to yourself. If you were to pursue victory or defeat rather than holding your ground, you risk losing everything. It’s easily forgotten that Ross’s tactics, while seemingly hesitant and subdued, were the same tactics that gave us the opportunity for promotion. In my humble opinion it’s the quality of the players on the pitch that caused us to miss out on that opportunity, as much as it is the tactics of the man that used said tactics to get us there. We can’t have it both ways. Who’s to say that had Ross committed more players forward for X amount of games we would have taken enough points to reach the play-offs, considering our defenders were docile for swathes of the season?

When you say the players are better than what they’ve achieved so far, I again sort of agree and disagree. Yes, on paper they are capable players that would arguably be welcomed at any club in this division and some would be considered a degree above it. My argument is a common one - nothing is won on paper. Hangman. Noughts and crosses. But not football.

Of those players you mentioned I rate three of them; Oviedo and Grigg don’t have the heart for a fight; Power has proven himself so far to be bang average and no small liability. I could go on but what I’m getting at is that beauty seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and when you look at the relative “pedigree” of these players when compared to their performances it’s easy to see what’s missing from their game. Grigg has scored many goals at this level and one would think that translates to whatever team he’s playing in, but having seen the man perform his negative attitude is evidently a bigger problem than the service he receives.

Having said that, whose job is it to instill a positive attitude? Whose job is it to ensure a formation that provides ample service to the attack? Whose job is it to galvanise players at half-time with choice words, or to do the same to the team by making the best tactical decision for the situation? Jack Ross, of course. The buck will always stop there, which is perhaps an unfair inevitability of the job.

Ultimately the manager’s job is so complex and labour-intensive that it seems from an outsiders perspective to be some mad sword-juggling act that demands so much but leaves no room for error. I think Ross is one of the better managers we’ve had in recent years, and that given another six months would have us where we want to be. His former employers gave him the time he needed to make real, qualitative changes over a relatively long period of time, and his success as a manager was born from that environment under those parameters. He was promised a long period of stability here in which to introduce that same success and if he doesn’t get it in spite of working within very delineated lines, I’ll be of the opinion that we fell short of supporting him.

All of this is of course moot if we get skinned in the next few games and my theories will come tumbling down like so many Sunderland’s through the divisions. For now though, based on what I’ve seen recently, I still have faith in the manager.

Sunderland v Oxford United - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

I can’t understand why Ross has them pumping balls at height in to the box when we do not possess a target man - he did the same last season, and while our defenders scored a few from corners I can’t recall any more from Wyke and Grigg. And ask any Coventry fan and they will tell you McNulty needs a target man.

If this manager can’t see this he will be gone by October.

Roger Stokell

Ed’s Note [Damian]: For the most part see my above response Roger, but I will join you in lamenting that play. We haven’t had players capable of aerial supremacy in so long that I genuinely can’t remember the last one. I suppose you would expect professional footballers to simply have that skill in their repertoire in the modern game.

Clearly it’s an unreasonable expectation, and Ross has been at fault for failing to recognise this shortcoming. The window isn’t quite over for us yet though.

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

This season is full of potential. We have a stable club, we have a strong squad, we have a good manager, we have a cracking chairman and we have the best fans in the country. We also have the most delicate fans in the country. We are so scared of another season in league 1 we are losing patience with the rate of progress after 1 game. We are blinded by fear.

I have a lot of empathy for our fans who have been through so much disappointment over the last 10 years. Unfortunately the disappointment has slowly infected the mentality and attitude of the a large portion of the fanbase which is ripe with negative undertones. I’d even suggest that we’re suffering from post traumatic stress, which has resurfaced after last years shortcomings.

As far as I can see Stewart Donald and his team have worked wonders to stabilise the club and give us a solid platform to build from. I condemn any fan who is not grateful for their efforts and urge the mindless few to have a look at the likes of Coventry and Bolton as a model of how far our plight would have continued. Stewart’s engagement with the fans has been the equivalent of a number of sessions with a psychiatrist and I pray that he’s not put off by the opinions of a few angry people.

We’re now in the next phase of change within the club. The board are continuing to improve the match day experience and are demanding promotion with no excuses. So why after the first game are we so apathetic? Apathy was a regularly used word across all of the SAFC podcasts before Stewart, it summed up our feelings and it was a product of the worst period in our clubs history. I used to cringe every time I heard the word because I knew it was true. There was no hope.

I am convinced that this season will fair better than the last and I beg all of our fans to show patience. I know it’s not easy but we can’t expect to have every game go our way. We have built a league 1 team to challenge for the title. It’s going to be rough at times, but surely that’s part of the fun?

Because football is supposed to be fun...

... or at least that’s what my psychiatrist has been telling me.

Anthony Richardson

Ed’s Note [Damian]: I share your optimism Anthony.

I’ve tried to wax lyrical about the hostile pustules that blister the skin of Sunderland fandom but cries invariably fall on deaf/obstinate ears and become lost in the maelstrom of angst that pervades every corner of the internet. I do often recall the apathy that tormented all but the most resilient of fans at a time when we were seemingly beset on all sides by enemies within. There seems to be no efficient way to combat the doom that people attach themselves to willingly. If they ever discover a cure for being emo I’ll be sure to apply that to the fan base with a crop duster.

Yes, I’ve noticed memories can die quickly on Wearside.

Of course that isn’t to say that there isn’t some cause for concern (again, see above responses for an example of those) but the your points are the kind that we should be giving credence to before we sink into despair after the first game of the season.