Fans and players alike are set for a culture shock this week. Trips to Gillingham and Wimbledon will highlight the difference between the SOL and other League One stadia, but Jack Ross doesn’t think it’s an issue. “I don’t travel south thinking, ‘Will they fancy this’, I absolutely believe they will. They know that themselves. They’re starting to get a wee taste for it, I think they’re thinking, ‘We want to keep this run going’. They want to keep winning games, remaining undefeated and staying at the right end of the table. I’ve already seen encouraging signs that the players are able to deal with the challenges they’ll face. Luton was a good example of that because we were stretched personnel-wise and it was a tough game. I think the next challenge for the players will be remaining grounded on the back of days like Sunday because they did play well, there’s no getting over the fact they were good, and with that comes praise and adulation. It’s then how you get yourself back to the default setting to go again. That’s what the good teams do, they’re relentless in their work. To win a title or achieve promotion you’ve got to be that. That’s the next challenge for the players. Those challenges are always expressed to them, they’re always made aware of them, and so far, every question that’s been asked of them, they’ve responded really well.”
Squad rotation is still an issue with so many players on the treatment table. Ross added: “I think at the moment we’re a little bit restricted in what we can really change, particularly in the forward areas, and I think there has to be a certain amount of continuity,” said Ross. “But I also think we’ll have to adapt to away games. Even pitch dimensions are a factor. We’ve made the pitch bigger again at the Stadium of Light and there are a couple of away stadiums where the pitches are bigger than ours – slightly bigger – but there are some which are much tighter, like Luton for example. Luton probably surprised me a bit in terms of the tightness of the pitch. I knew the stadium was tight but in terms of the dimensions of the pitch, that was something I’ve looked at a bit more closely since then. Not that it changes completely how we play, but it just makes you a little bit more aware that it might be more difficult to do what we did against Scunthorpe at some away grounds.”
With the games coming thick and fast, Jack Ross is well aware of the demands on the likes of Glenn Loovens and is tailoring training appropriately. Ross said: “You have that communication with your players, and to be fair regardless of their age or experience it’s good to know how they’re feeling. Then you have to have that flexibility, be prepared to bend with them in terms of the training schedule and what they do. Players like Glenn Loovens will be like that, we’ll find the best way to get him ready for games and if he’s not ready, we’ll understand that. That’s why we have a squad, and in my head I always have three or four teams anyway, so that you’re prepared for all eventualities. It’s the same when the game starts, generally I’ll have an idea if I have to make changes.”
Chris Maguire has been there and done it in League One and is well aware of the challenges that the likes of the Priestfield Stadium will bring. “I’ve been there myself, and they’re not easy places to go. The pitches will be a bit better as we’re going there early in the season, so that might work to our benefit. They’ll try and make it tough for us the way Luton did. The pitch will be tight, it is at Gillingham. But it is up to us to go out and keep the momentum going. We’re confident in ourselves. We won’t go shouting about it, but we know within ourselves that we’ve got the ability to go and do it. We’ve got great depth in the squad, and we’ve got boys that no matter what formation we change to, they can go in and fill the role.”
Finally, if you are travelling on ALS coaches to Gillingham, can you get down to the SOL for 11.15? We are going to try and leave early to avoid the traffic and get more pre-match pub time...