ALS Chat to Jack Ross

OK folks, here’s an interview we did with Jack Ross, for the current ALS, just before the season began. The magazine's pretty much sold out now, so we thought we'd share it here...

So, I’m walking through the academy on my way to have the craic with the new boss, Jack Ross. As I wander, I can’t help recalling that the last time I was here was for a meeting it was with Chris Coleman and Martin Bain and all the talk was centred on selling the club and the outside chance of avoiding relegation. So much has happened in such a short space of time since then…

I turned up in t shirt, shorts and trainers, feeling a bit scruffy. I’d considered long trousers, but thought sod it, it’s the hottest summer ever and I’m not sweating my bollocks off. Thankfully,Charlie Methven turned up to take me in, looking like a beach bum too.

En route to the manager’s office, Methven stopped at almost every office, or desk, and chatted to the staff about their day. The place was a hive of activity, the season was about to begin, there are some new faces to meet and some old ones to say hi to, but the atmosphere has totally changed since my last visit, for the better.

Ross is in a meeting room with several people I don’t recognise. I immediately presume that I’ll be kept waiting, I also remember I’m a little late. But Ross comes straight out to meet me, shakes my hand and shows me into his office.

It’s then that I realise that I’ve left my reading glasses at ALS and can’t refer to my questions on my phone! In other words, I’ve lost my comfort blanket. Oh well, I’ll just blag it and talk about football to him and see if he’s a decent guy… here goes…

How old were you when you fell in love with football and which team did you follow as a boy?

I do genuinely love the game. Probably my earliest memory of football is the 1982 World Cup, I was six at the time. Even then I was massively interested in football and loved it and that kind of obsession with the game never really left me. Being involved in it professionally has never really tainted it, sometimes it taints your enjoyment of it, but even if I found myself out of the game at any point, I would always go and watch matches. In terms of supporting clubs, it was a little bit unusual, I grew up watching quite a lot of junior football, which in Scotland is a little bit like the equivalent of non-league.

I grew up in an area called Camelon, which is just next to Falkirk, and they had a junior team, so I used to watch them to start with. It was great because as a young lad you could walk around the whole ground and you could get the ball for the goalkeeper when it went behind the goal and kick it back to him. That probably helped my affection for the game grow.

Then I spent a lot of time as a teenager watching Dundee (FC) because my best friend’s father was a season ticket holder at Dens Park and we used to go and watch them home and away with him. Just by coincidence I ended up signing for Dundee as a boy, but I was released at the end of my apprenticeship, which kind of took away the affection I had for the club a wee bit, I had that resentment, rejection I suppose. And then, I think when you play professionally it’s difficult to be a fan of a particular club, because the club you’re at should really kind of grab you. Beyond that I’m a football fan of the national team, Scotland.

Did you get to go to many Scotland games?

I’ve been lucky that I grew up in a generation where Scotland got to major tournaments. I was at Euro 96 at Wembley when Gazza scored and Scotland missed a penalty and stuff. I was lucky, and that’s the only thing for me that I feel a bit sorry for those youngsters in Scotland now who love football and haven’t yet seem their team at a major tournament for one reason or an another. It’s a shame because as a country we’ve always had a rich football history. Hopefully, I think there’s a generation coming through at the moment that I think will give us probably our best opportunity, it’s just getting there is the difficult thing.

I think we’ve struggled with identity a wee bit. When we started not to qualify, we became a little bit obsessed with what do they do in Spain, Holland, or in England and became so obsessed with replicating others. Us Scots, we speak quickly, eat quickly, drink quickly and we’re quite aggressive. We do things in a certain way, and we used to play that way. So, is it not worth just getting better at what you’re good at rather than trying to be like somebody else? We can’t compare ourselves to the Spanish or the Dutch because we’re a different culture. I think we’re getting there a little bit and we’ve started rediscovering our identity a wee bit. The players involved in the national team now are playing at a good level.

Was it hard making it as a professional footballer?

Like a lot of young players, I went from a being a schoolboy signing to getting offered a full-time position, and you’re thinking - Right: next will be professional contract, next stage will be first team, and next stage will be a move to a bigger club. When it gets ripped away from you and you get released, in those days going back to 1993/94 there was no support, no education support and there was no welfare support. It was just basically being told thanks for your efforts and bye! I ended up going back to university just because I didn’t really know what else to do. While I was at uni I played junior football and studied, and I hated it, hated university. I didn’t really want to be there because I had this chip on my shoulder that I should be a footballer. When I reached 20 I started to believe that I was good enough and I needed to give it a proper crack. I started training harder and thought well okay, I need to prove I was the best at this level to get an opportunity back at professional football. It certainly was an unusual career path going that way. I went from Scottish Premier League to junior football in a blink of an eye. It’s not just about ability, that resilience is pretty hard to get and being honest I didn’t have it when I was 18, that’s probably why I got released.

What would you describe as your career highlights?

After I had been back playing professionally for a couple of years at Clyde, we won the Second Division. Winning a league title with any club, in any league, I always think is one of the most special things you can do. I’m trying to drive that message home here at Sunderland. Winning League One regardless where you’ve been in your career, or where you may get to in the future, should be the biggest thing you can do at the moment. Winning a title is brilliant! It’s a slog, it’s a grind - it’s proper digging it out. I got to the cup final with St Mirren, I got a Scotland B cap, which for me was a massive thing, getting chosen to playing for my country. I captained teams at Ibrox, Parkhead and Hampden. Just the fact that I got back to playing professional football at the top level in Scotland was probably the biggest thing, after being let go. I’d been rejected, was out of the game, but getting back to playing in the Premier League was the main thing for me.

Was having your career cut short by injury devastating?

I was lucky to an extent, that I was in my mid-30s, I was getting towards the end of my career. I still had general fitness, but I was in a lot of pain, the only thing was it wasn’t bad enough to make me not be able to do it. I had to make the decision myself. Most players, if you asked, would rather the decision was taken out of their hands. I know it sounds a bit brutal, it’s a hard thing to let go of. Psychologically I don’t think there’s a player out there who would say it’s not tough, not being able to play anymore. I had worked outside football before, so maybe I didn’t have the fear, I had lived outside that bubble. There’s a huge world outside, people earn a living in a lot of different ways. But since I’ve stopped playing I’ve remained involved in the game because I was working with the PFA. Players don’t get sympathy but it’s comparable to somebody that’s worked in a factory for 30 years and all of a sudden, they get made redundant and their life gets swept away from them. It’s a challenging period, but definitely those experiences earlier in my career did help me deal with that when it came around.

You then went onto work for the PFA and became chairman of the Scottish PFA

When I went in I was tasked with doing a sports betting and integrity project. That branched out into player welfare and education. So, I was involved in career planning for players and career transition when they come out of the game. Player welfare in terms of betting integrity and mental health; I was really interested in that area, particularly career transition because how I know how lonely it can get. I was doing a lot with FIFPRO and the player’s union, they helped me as a manager.

But you were always looking to get back into coaching and management, I guess?

Yes! I took on the assistant manager at Dumbarton, they were in (Scottish) League One at the time and I got the chance to go in there strangely because I had looked at potentially playing again on a part time basis. I was asked to go in as a player/assistant, but I said I don’t think I can be a player, because of the injury. It was a small club, training two nights a week, so I could do it alongside the PFA work. I did my A and B licences as a player, but I had never coached practically. I had never actually taken players. I was surprised how much I loved it. The interest in coaching got greater and the following season I got the chance to go to Hearts, right back into the full-time football environment, working with the first team and the Under-20 squad. I had always wanted to manage when I was a player, I never really wanted to coach and towards the end at Hearts, I was getting a little bit frustrated and left there and got the chance to be the manager at Alloa. Since then things have gone really well on the management side, I had a decent time and managed at St Mirren and now obviously find myself here.

Last year you won the PFA Scotland Manager of the Year. In your view, what are the most important attributes of being a successful manager?

I think the communication aspect of it is key, in terms of communication on an individual basis and collectively. Remembering what it’s like to be a player and how they feel. I try to remain consistent in my mood with the players and how I treat them, so it doesn’t fluctuate dramatically according to the results. Because, I think that’s a real flaw in football, when you win all your players are your best mates or when you get beaten you think they’re rubbish. The consistency in behaviour is key because the players trust you more if they believe you’re consistent with them. They might not always agree with what I’m saying but if I’ve had a conversation, I think 99 times out of 100 they’ll feel better because they’ll think ‘At least I know where I’ll stand’. I’ll always try and adapt and get better, but those core values will always remain. I don’t think If I lose my first six games, like I did at St Mirren, that I’m going to change my approach, you’d be stupid! Football is ridiculously unpredictable, it doesn’t follow logic. You can work harder than anyone else and do things better than anyone else, so that you win games. It probably increases your chances of doing it, but there’s no guarantee. You can sit there on a Saturday morning thinking, yeah, the boys have been great this week, but then get a man sent off in the first minute and all the hard work is undone!

So, what’s your football philosophy?

I’ve never pigeon-holed myself to playing to a certain system or playing in a certain way. I’ve always looked at it as having to find ways to win games. The opposition and the level will determine that to a degree, but I’ve always worked on the premise that I don’t think that should be the overriding factor in how you set your team up. There should be a greater focus on what your team can do. I look to break the game down into four key aspects: how we defend, press, counter and how we switch. That’s only me and how I work within training sessions and how I plan. There’s always a correlation between these four areas and what we’re doing on the training pitch. I don’t mind mistakes. I’m more bothered about the reaction and the response to the mistake. Mistakes are always going to happen. Supporters will say if somebody makes a mistake and costs a goal, I get it, but it’s more for me the initial reaction and are you still going to be big enough to be involved in the game, and in the longer term are you prepared to go into the next game and say you can deal with that. If you create that environment and you get that right with players and if you’ve got good players, they thrive under that, particularly the forward players. If I’m saying to Lynden Gooch every time you’re one v one you go and get at people - if I tell him that and he does it five times in a row and gets the ball taken from him and I’m standing on the side-line caning him, that’s wrong, it doesn’t work. That goes back to the consistency of behaviour.

Which other managers have you looked up to?

None of the managers I worked under I would have said had a massive influence on me and I mean that in the most respectful way. More so since I’ve been in management myself, I’ve probably taken a greater interest in what managers do. I’ve been lucky that Brendan (Rodgers) at Celtic has been really good to me. I’ve been to see him a few times and watched him train with his players. If you speak to him it’s not work, he’s got a way of working. As a young lad, when I was seven or eight years old I went up to Aberdeen and my dad was doing some work up there. Aberdeen at that time, in the early 80s, won the European Cup Winners Cup in 83 and Sir Alex Ferguson was manager. My dad took me up to the ground after training to get autographs. We went outside the ground and no players came out. We were a wee bit late and the players were all away. Then Sir Alex Ferguson came out and signed an autograph for me and he started talking to my dad. Ferguson asked if I wanted to see in the stadium and inside the ground. He said he would do it himself, but he had a meeting. So, he took us in and got one of the young players to show us and apologised that he couldn’t take us round himself. That always stuck with me, I kind of thought it was brilliant in terms of his willingness to take time for a young lad who just loved football. It stuck with me when I was a player as well and when I did fan events I never thought; ‘Ah Jesus got to do this again and speak to these daft supporters.’ Sir Alex phoned last season, just before we clinched the title at St Mirren. He phoned me on the Friday. I answered this unknown number and the voice is saying “Jack it’s Sir Alex Ferguson here.” I was thinking it’s a wind-up at first. It was great for me because for any Scotsman as a manager he’s an icon and a hero for good reason. His success was unparalleled and probably never will be repeated.

What book are you reading right now?

I’m quite interested in leadership in general and I carry this book (he goes to his bag and shows me) ‘The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader’. It’s brilliant because it’s so bloody simple. The author talks about charisma and how you share your life with others.

Was it an easy decision to leave St Mirren, to come to Sunderland? I guess you turned down Ipswich too…

It wasn’t an easy decision to leave St Mirren, I loved the job and the club and was really fond of the players. I was really close to the group and for 18 months they had produced miracles, stayed up in ridiculous circumstances, then going on to win the league the following season. In my general life I was happy too, I wasn’t chasing something, I was looking forward to the challenge in the Scottish Premiership. But as more interest came up I probably knew I was going to leave, because these were opportunities I might not get again. Then this one came up. It was a really interesting one for a number of reasons. Obviously, Charlie (Methven) and Stewart’s (Donald) involvement, the change of ownership and then you balance that up with everything that’s happened with the club recently. It’s a challenge! But it just appealed to me, in so many different ways and the more I thought about it and the more I spoke to Charlie and Stuart the more appealing it got. The good thing about speaking to Charlie and Stuart is from the beginning we got on well which I think that’s important. You can underestimate that as well, there has to be a chemistry there. I just think that the potential of the club is huge. I think there’s excitement, if I can get it right on the football side. It’s a proper football club, proper, proper football club! I’ve known that from day one, being around the area and going to the stadium and hearing supporters chat, the passion they have. It’s still got that old fashioned generational appeal as a club, and not all cubs have that anymore. My responsibility in that is getting a team that wins games.

And how are you settling into the area?

That side has been good, the family have been down here for a while now and have really settled well in the area, geographically there’s not an issue, it’s just down the road from Scotland. We really love it. I’d do anything round here to help the club. If I need to go and empty a bin, I’ll empty a bin, it doesn’t bother me. I think I’ve come down to an area where that’s instilled in people. Real working-class people who love football. It’s been a really good fit that way.

How does managing St Mirren and Sunderland compare?

People talk about the comparisons between the two jobs. St Mirren had success, been in the top league and won a national cup and then been on a downward spiral and when I took the job we were really bottoming out, but the disconnect between the club and the supporters was huge. It was on a different level, but it was the same type of thing. You had to try and reconnect that, you had to put yourself in the firing line a wee bit. I kind of did that in loads of different ways. I was prepared to go and engage with supporters, but was also prepared to take responsibility when we weren’t doing well. By being open in your communication you slowly but surely buy yourself more time and respect. I stepped into the stand one game to have a discussion with the supporters who were criticising me. I said come to the training ground and I’ll show you what we do, I’ll show you how I work and I’ll show you how I plan training and the information the players get. I’ve got nothing to hide. I back what I do, I believe in what I do. It might not guarantee results, but please come. After that if you still think I’m a useless so and so and I don’t know what I’m doing then fine, I’ve got nothing to hide.

And finally, what’s your musical history?

I grew up listening to: Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Charlatans. I went and saw quite a lot of them live at Barrowlands in Glasgow, like The Charlatans, Ocean Colour Scene, when they were coming through. I’ve seen Happy Mondays, Black Grape and saw Oasis at Loch Lomond, obviously Oasis were more mainstream, but I’ve always kind of loved music. Never been musical in terms of being able to play music but I always loved it. When I was younger I’d probably listen to music more than I’d watch TV, then as you get older and have kids it becomes more difficult. The chance to listen to it lessens. Live music is still probably the best thing, but the bands I see now have changed quite dramatically. The last person I saw live was John Legend and the boy can sing to be fair, and before that it was Michael Bublé because that’s when you wife drags you along! But I love Spotify because it chucks all these random things at me. Only problem on my Spotify is that when it goes on shuffle there’s as much Disney and Little Mix as there is Swedish House Mafia because the kids, of course, go on it. I quite like lyrics of songs as well. I’ve always loved my music and it’s been quite good here, I’ve got a 45-minute drive to and from training and although most of that time I’m on the phone, when I’m not I use the opportunity to listen to music. I love Carpool Karaoke with James Corden too, it’s genius.

And that was about that, apart from the fact that I needed some help saving the recording of the interview on my iPhone, cos of my lack of specs, but thankfully Charlie Methven bailed me out there. Let’s hope these new guys bail us out of League One at the first possible opportunity, and we have some fun on the way, like we did back in 1987.

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