That period in between Christmas and New Year is always a bit of a drag. There may be some relatives staying over that you’ve become a bit too fed up of and all the excitement of the big unwrapping of presents has passed. That’s a little like the place us Sunderland fans find ourselves in at the minute. The great big news of billionaires arriving was followed with relative silence and a couple more 1-1 draws which automatically turned attention from the takeover to the status quo; i.e. we weren’t exactly rocking all over League One.
Having been at the Accrington game I share the concerns of many other fans albeit those concerns are tempered by the fact that we won 3-1 away from home. The performance was lethargic with stray passes frustrating me on a number of occasions. The vitriol towards Jack Ross is not so much placed on results but on the cause of those results.
With the score well in our favour at half time at the Wham Stadium and with creativity and supposed top drawer League One players on the teamsheet many expected the score to rise well above 3-1. The second half was lacklustre at best and showed no will or determination to put Accrington to the sword and make a statement. We won, we left smiling, but there were a few nagging doubts.
When we took the lead early on at home to Rotherham things seemed better; then we missed a penalty. Then Rotherham equalised. It’s fair to say that Rotherham have been a good side this season and will be up there at the end but from an early advantage we again conspired to let them back into the game which was disappointing. Rotherham had, of course, just come to the SoL on the back of a 6-1 hammering of Bolton so a 1-1 draw with them is perhaps not as bad as everyone suggests. That would be the case, at least, if we hadn’t then faced Bolton in our next game and scraped another 1-1 draw.
For many this was the turning point; a team who had conceded so many goals against opposition we would perceive as weaker than us almost managed to beat us 1-0. The reaction in the stands from Sunderland fans was predictable as the polish of the new era starts to fade. The manager’s comments after the game about clean sheets being the problem represents a huge mismatch between expectations on the terraces and expectations in the dugout.
The expectations of Jack Ross’ employers are reasonably unknown at present and credit to them for that. Regardless of the results or whether he is the right man for the job, Jack Ross deserves respect as a human being and some of the name calling has been a step too far. The fact that the current owners are not openly adding to that pressure is commendable. One does wonder if that is more down to the fact that they are not viewed as the problem at present but only they know the answer to that.
The reason I pose that viewpoint is because of the current takeover position. As it stands it is very difficult to point a finger at the current ownership because we are all hoping that a more endowed, in a financial sense, group of owners will bring the investment that is required to fulfil the dream that the current owners promised. The Dortmund model, the top flight sustainability. For all we can point a finger at Jack Ross in terms of tactics, a lot can be said for the recruitment policy at Sunderland. Stewart Donald was very clear in those opening podcasts that League One could be won with players on short term contracts with very little expenditure in terms of wages. That is true; just look at Luton. In Luton you had a team built from the ashes and they are now playing championship football with a squad holding players that many of us will not be able to name. I would assume their wage bill is very low. Wycombe are holding their own at the top, Fleetwood too. Our gate receipts alone put us well above all these teams in terms of financial clout. I don’t really want to pinpoint individual players but across the team there are areas where we are weak. Reece James was identified as a weakness and has left; Jack Baldwin has left on loan. Will Grigg was purchased for an astronomical fee in context of the division. Whichever way you look at it recruitment has not been great. Now you could suggest that Jack Ross’ tactics don’t bring out the best in Grigg, but McNulty is scoring.
There is always over the top blame when things are going wrong, there is always over the top praise when things are going right. Ultimately failure is a sum of many parts as much as success is a team effort. Jack Ross has got things wrong; I am sure he would admit that, but he should not be isolated in that criticism. When we have had managers who put squads through authoritarian regimes or managers who have shut out journalists and fanzines to the point of physical threats, when you see the difference Jack Ross has made in terms of connecting the squad to the fanbase then he does deserve credit. Results will always be the barometer of a manager’s achievements but in an isolated position you have to question whether that is entirely fair.
Ultimately, we don’t know what Ross was offered in terms of support but a young manager with relatively little experience should always have been offered the opportunity of having a steadying hand alongside him. I agree with many that he has lost his way and it is hard to see how he can claw this back; but let’s not turn him into a pariah.