With Jack Ross getting the boot from Sunderland AFC this week, Matt Wilson looks back on his tenure – and where it went wrong
When Stewart Donald announced Jack Ross as his first managerial appointment as Sunderland owner, there was cautious optimism amongst fans. Running the risk of having an Alan Shearer/Hatem Ben Arfa moment I’m willing to bet that few fans knew much about him at that point but after scratching the surface a little it appeared to be a shrewd and logical appointment.
At just 41 he was Sunderland’s youngest permanent manager since Roy Keane in 2006 (doesn’t sound that long ago but we’ve had 11 permanent managers since then) so had the opportunity to grow with a club in dire need of a rebuild. His record at St Mirren, albeit with a club a fraction of Sunderland’s size, had been impressive having saved the club from relegation in 2016-17 to winning the Scottish Championship by 12 points the following year. What’s more, all indications suggested we could look forward to an attacking playing style with promises of trying to outscore the opposition.
What went wrong?
All was going fairly well until around the turn of the year when top scorer Josh Maja left the club with Sunderland third in the table. A combination of Ross and Donald seemingly decided Will Grigg was the man to replace Josh Maja’s goals, and again the logic was sound with Grigg being tried and tested at that level, and Donald in particular showed his faith by smashing the League One transfer record to secure his services. However, Ross never managed to get Grigg functioning properly in the team, the goals dried up and looking back this was the beginning of the end.
Another watershed moment was the Checkatrade Trophy final. Sunderland lost to Portsmouth on penalties and afterwards went on to lose four times in the final two months of the season, having only lost twice in the eight months prior to that. We slid out of automatic promotion contention and into the playoffs. Still, Sunderland came within minutes of forcing extra time in the play-off final against Charlton only to have their hopes dashed in injury time.
However, at a club of this size in their second successive League One season, there simply isn’t time to implement anything that doesn’t work straight away.
This season started out steadily enough, but he quickly jettisoned his preferred system of three at the back with wingbacks bombing forward, after it didn’t yield immediate results. Herein lies the crux of the matter. I do think Jack Ross has something as a manager and has shown it in flashes during his time at Sunderland. However, at a club of this size in their second successive League One season, there simply isn’t time to implement anything that doesn’t work straight away.
Bolton away was another turning point when fans formerly abstaining from calling for the manager’s head began to be pulled in the other direction. By the time we lost 2-0 away at Lincoln it seemed that the players had stopped playing for him too. Having started out looking like a cool new geography teacher, with his slim-fit suit trousers, brown brogues and promises of “fun” he ended up looking more like a hastily-appointed supply teacher, in a clueless daze as his players presumably swapped shirts and giggled behind his back.
I wish Jack Ross well, safe in the knowledge that he tried his best, and wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him flourish at another club with slightly less panicked ambitions. Meanwhile we await news of his successor and the beginning of yet another chapter in the history of this batshit crazy club.