Jack Ross could be forgiven for being sick of the sight of Portsmouth FC. Since Sunderland’s manager arrived for his second coming in English football 15 months ago, looking to banish the memory of an unhappy year at Hartlepool as a player, the Scot has come up against Pompey five times. He has won once, lost once, drawn thrice. That doesn’t even tell the tale fully: one of those draws felt as good as a win, securing as it did a play-off final berth; another was essentially a loss, given that it prefaced a penalty shoot-out defeat.
Saturday’s visit of our, ahem, friends from the south coast will mark the sixth renewal of hostilities inside the last eight months. By any measure, that is a ridiculous amount of times for two football teams to face off. But for Ross the game takes on added importance. Without wishing to be overly dramatic, there is a very real possibility that this could be the last he sees of Portsmouth for a long while.
That seems a silly thing to say just three games into the season, but it is representative of reality. Though it would never be admitted publicly, sources close to the club are clear that Sunderland’s flakey start to the season is unlikely to be tolerated for too long. Such is the importance of promotion this year, any continuation of the poor showings at home to Oxford and away to Ipswich could see Ross lose his job. The stakes are too high and, after a season in which leeway was given, there will be little room for excuses.
Certainly, Ross knows that and his bristling post match reaction during the week was indicative of as much. Since arriving on Wearside, he has spoken calmly and eloquently at almost every turn but, in the aftermath of a pretty pleasing 3-1 victory at Accrington on Tuesday, the gaffer showed real hints of frustration. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t” was his rather telling response to a question on formations and, more pointedly, whether or not his experimentation with three centre-halves had now been abandoned.
The answer to that particular question will arrive on Saturday lunchtime but, regardless of formation, what seems clear is that Ross needs both a performance and a result if he is to repel the upsurge of ill feeling that is gathering pace and headed directly for him. 17 1-1 draws in 48 league games is not good enough to win promotion and the disastrous early showings from that new formation, which has now been abandoned twice in as many games, has done little to support the idea that he knows best. Similarly, below-par performances in two set-piece Wembley games makes it a struggle to bat away claims that the job, and its incumbent pressures, might just be too big for him.
Not that his current position is entirely of his own making. Ross is a smart man and knows better than to badmouth his employers in public, but there have been times throughout his reign where his annoyance has been thinly veiled. It was fairly evident during the Josh Maja saga and, in recent weeks, there has been just that glimmer of all not being well behind the scenes. When asked about his transfer budget he pointed out that “I don’t work with a budget here, I’ve never had one. So it’s difficult for me to say with certainty what I can and can’t do.” That seems at odds with what the owners proclaimed upon their arrival, just as his confirmation of the club’s “one in, one out” policy jars with what we were told at the beginning of the summer.
The events of the summer itself have taken their toll too. Ross has admitted that he would be lying if he did not say takeover talk had affected him during the break, and the idea that it had no bearing on the club’s activities, as Donald originally suggested, is again out of step with reality. What is more, negotiations to sell the club continue to this day, if recent murmurings are credible.
In addition, the manager’s inability to get a tune out of Will Grigg has become a focal point for many fans, with Grigg receiving plenty of the scorn, but apportioning blame requires a fuller view of things. Not since his arrival has Ross set up the team in a manner that would best suit Grigg and, were he not fully onboard with the signing, it is difficult to argue that he hasn’t been undermined both at this turn and others.
Yet it is also difficult to argue that he shouldn’t be doing better. Arguments that Sunderland boast the best squad in the league fall a bit flat when we consider that the one left-footed outfielder in the squad is a full-back many agree is too raw (and the left-back situation is another whereby Ross can rightly wonder if he has been left somewhat in the lurch), but certainly this side should be better than some of what we have seen in the past fortnight. The opening half at Portman Road was a horror show, the most worrying sign yet that Ross may no longer be the best man for the job.
We may find out rather soon how his employers feel on that one. Anything less than a good performance and three points against Portsmouth will have yet more hounds at the manager’s door, and a loss (or, God forbid, another 1-1 draw) could be another nail in this managerial coffin.
Pompey have had a middling start themselves, losing one and winning the other, but they will come to the Stadium of Light full of energy and looking to stick the boot in, both figuratively and literally. Jack Ross and Sunderland need a performance and a result. A big weekend awaits.