On this day in 2019, Jack Ross put out a Sunderland team for the last time, as we fell to a disappointing 2-0 defeat away to Lincoln City.
Two Tyler Walker goals – punctuated by a missed Walker penalty – saw a toothless Sunderland team fall to its second defeat in eleven games, which was enough to cause the hierarchy to pull the pin.
It’d had been a strange few months for Sunderland, as is par for the course. After blowing automatic promotion and suffering the last minute play-off heartache, the pre-season preparation had been played out to an expectation of the club being sold to Mark Campbell – Ross acknowledging he’d been introduced to, and discusses transfer targets with, the prospective owner. As pre-season motored on, our transfer activity – and pre-season fixtures didn’t – and we started the season after only four warm-up games looking seriously undercooked.
An experimental looking back five formation didn’t help. After the play-off disappointment and the 100 point proclamations from above, expectation – and the threshold for accepting anything less – was extremely high.
Performances weren’t great, but results weren’t too bad at all. However coming off the back of a season in which, until the final throes, we’d not suffered too many defeats at all – and no heavy defeats at that – a 3-0 reverse at a Maddison-inspired Peterborough set alarm bells ringing, which grew louder and louder after we needed a McGeady penalty to earn a draw at an under-resourced Bolton Wanderers.
Still, we went into the game at Sincil Bank with five wins, four draws and one defeat from our first ten games, 19 points – a PPG for those playing at home which would have got us promoted had it continued. Victories in the League Cup away at Premier League Burnley and Sheffield United had also suggested we were on the right track.
The start to the season had also been played out to a backdrop of an imminent takeover by the Dell consortium, and the impression was that, should we not be hitting our straps early, we would be well positioned to seek an upgrade on Ross.
The poor performances – albeit with respectable results – combined with the takeover looking set to be signed, sealed and delivered, brought a feeling of inevitability over Ross’s position. In hindsight, it seems ridiculous he was under any pressure, but the Lincoln game seemed like a last chance for Ross. He needed a good result and a performance to match, and unfortunately he got neither.
The following week, he was given his marching orders. Totally coincidentally, of course, it was within hours of the news breaking that the takeover had fallen through. A good day to bury bad news, as someone morally-questionable once said.
It was a disappointing end to an appointment that had promised so much. A young, highly thought of manager whose career was on the up, could, it was hoped, build something sustainable that would see us prosper in the longer term. However, it never quite worked – we never had a clear style of play, we sat back on 1-0 leads – often to concede an equaliser – and we lost our bottle when it mattered most.
Viewed in hindsight, he’d had an awful lot to deal with – he had very few players to start with, while the sale of Maja and the enforced purchase of an overpriced Grigg didn’t do him any favours.
He left SAFC with an all competitions record of 38 wins and 27 draws in 75 games, and suffered only ten defeats; in the league the Lincoln game was only his seventh defeat in 57. For context, his replacement managed four defeats in his first seven fixtures.
Patience, perhaps, is a virtue.
Sunderland team versus Lincoln: J McLaughlin, C McLaughlin, Willis, Lynch, De Bock (Grigg, 65); Maguire (McNulty, 54), McGeouch, Power, Gooch (McGeady 53); O’Nien, Wyke. Subs not used: Burge, Flanagan, Leadbitter, Dobson.