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ITHICS Fanzine: Jack Ross & Alan Durban - how do their tenures as Sunderland manager compare?

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“Experienced fans have seen a lot of football. Many managers and players have come and gone since I first walked into Roker in 1982. We can tell whether a manager knows what he is doing or is struggling” writes Mark Egan.

Danny Roberts

A few weeks ago I asked in this column whether any of us had signs of real improvement under Jack Ross’s management. Later, the consensus on the Roker Report Podcast was that people were 60:40 for Ross, or perhaps 60:40 against. Without signs of an upward curve, he would have to walk.

There then followed a series of wins, including a surprising cup victory at Burnley. Perhaps things had clicked and that 100-point season was on after all. Stewart Donald talked about more signings and everything looked rosy. Then we crashed and burned at Peterborough and the pendulum swung against Jack Ross again.

Recently I have been reading Give Us Tomorrow Now, a book about Alan Durban’s time as Sunderland manager from 1981 to 1984. This was when I first started going to Roker Park so I remember a lot of the games and incidents well, although some of it – particularly Durban’s outspoken comments to the press about his own squad – is new to me. There are a lot of parallels between Ross and Durban.

Both men were given specific missions. Durban’s job was to stop Sunderland battling relegation from the First Division and become an established, top-half side: Ross has clear instructions to get us into the Championship. Both looked to rely on younger players, to create a new ethos and spirit at the club, using older players where necessary for experience but weeding out players with the wrong attitude.

Durban struggled to find a settled side. He constantly chopped and changed and played people out of position – using Gary Rowell in midfield and Colin West in defence, for example. Jack Ross seems to have no idea of what his best side, or best formation might be. He too is not averse to putting willing players in unfamiliar slots.

Durban divided opinion amongst the fans. Some liked his openness and the way he talked up the young lads – Pickering, Venison, Bracewell, West and McCoist (until he was sold). Others thought he was delivering no improvement from Ken Knighton’s 1981 relegation struggle or the relegation battles from the 1960s and 1970s. Something similar is happening with Jack Ross.

Burnley v Sunderland - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images

Received wisdom now is that it was a mistake to sack Alan Durban in 1984. That is due to what happened next. Then chairman Tom Cowie brought in Len Ashurst, a stalwart defender from the 1960s who had done well at Newport but was totally out of his depth in the First Division. Worse was to come with Lawrie Macmenemy, whose focus on buying players at the end of their careers caused the remaining young players to become disillusioned and leave and led to relegation to the Third Division.

Had Durban stayed, so it goes, we would have gradually cemented ourselves into that mid-table berth in the First Division and then who knows? Some of Durban’s young players went on to enjoy long careers at the top but others, such as Paul Atkinson, did not. We don’t know if Durban would have been a success and he never took a top managerial role after leaving Roker.

What does any of this tell us about Jack Ross?

Experienced fans have seen a lot of football. Many managers and players have come and gone since I first walked into Roker in 1982. We can tell whether a manager knows what he is doing or is struggling. I am concerned that Ross is struggling.

He has fantastic backing from his Chairman who has invested in players way beyond the means of almost every other club in League One. We have a squad which we can all see, on paper, is good enough to get promoted. But the manager can’t establish a formation or a game plan which the players are comfortable with and which delivers results.

We cannot keep a clean sheet – the basic prerequisite of a successful team. If Jack Ross is an up-and-coming manager he needs to arrive at Sunderland, and arrive fast, because my faith in him delivering tomorrow now is running out.