There was something typically Sunderland about the Play-Off Final. The initial ecstasy which gradually faded over an hour and a half, until it became to devastation at the death. It was reassuringly familiar, if not completely soul destroying. It still hurts, and I can’t say I’ve watched the highlights back, but I’m getting over it as we all are.
Tempers have calmed since that Sunday night, when the wounds were fresh, people had time to kill on journeys home and data to use. Now is the time to look back with clearer heads and reflect on the season that was, and how to move on.
Ultimately, last season was disappointing but not a total failure. To experience the drop off in form we did and eventually finish fifth was a concern, but we put that to behind us to some extent in the play-offs. Fifth does not represent where we were for most of the campaign. It was our lowest league position since the second round of matches. After that we broke into the play off places, flitting between second and fourth, applying pressure but never cementing ourselves in the top two.
Amidst the takeover hype, our signings consisted of mainly top-end League One players, skimping on certain areas to fund big buys. We spent the season in this area, and that was where we finished. Our stature heightened our expectation, but what was delivered would be standard for anyone else.
The consensus amongst supporters is that there were question marks around the squad’s ability to step up to the Championship. Promotion is the objective, but we must be ready to maximise the opportunity it presents. The ideas that a second season in League One is a failure, but that we’d have to overhaul the squad to survive in the Championship are incompatible. To be promoted infers that you have a squad capable of competing in the division above.
If we’d seen out the Play-Off Final, it would have meant very little in terms of our overall season. We’d still have finished fifth. It wouldn’t have meant we’d played better in the previous 46 league games and it wouldn’t suddenly make the squad capable of playing at a higher level. It makes no sense to put so much emphasis on a promotion we weren’t ready for and potentially come straight back down.
Patrick Bauer’s last minute winner didn’t stop us from going up; the inconsistencies which dogged our season did. We recorded the fewest defeats of anybody in the division, but the most draws. We had the fourth meanest defence, but conceded in almost three quarters of our games. We’ve found the net in every match except one, but were only the third highest goalscorers. Addressing these issues will go some way to ensuring this season isn’t equally as disappointing.
Yet the theory that Jack Ross should pay for this perceived failure with his job is one I can’t get behind. Getting rid of a manager is one of the easiest things to do in football. Harder still is replacing him with a better one. Of everyone calling for Ross’ dismissal, I’m yet to hear a credible name to replace him. Someone with recent success at this level, who is realistically willing and able to come to Sunderland and kick us on. Not giving the job to, say, Kevin Phillips for purely sentimental reasons. I’m a Sunderland fan, not a Jack Ross fan, and if I believed a change of direction was in the club’s best interests I would be all for it. At the minute, I can’t see that it is.
Sacking managers generally feels overwhelmingly positive, albeit someone is losing their job. But as a fan, if you’ve been calling for a sacking and it happens, it vindicates your opinion and judgement. It feels like the Chairman has listened to your concerns and offers reassurance that they are proactively trying to address problems. There is an element of uncertainty tinged with optimism. Though you don’t know what, or who, the future holds, things are bound to get better even if only marginally.
Ultimately, the last manager who had a positive long-term impact was Roy Keane, 13 years ago. Sam Allardyce and Gus Poyet led us to temporary highs in recent years, but left us right back where they found us.
As a fanbase, given our recent track record of hiring and firing managers, we’ve become desensitised to managerial sackings. The Sunderland manager losing his job is barely a surprise, whereas at other clubs it would be the last-case scenario. We’ve started from scratch so many times it doesn’t appear to be as drastic a solution as it is. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve fallen as far as we have. Now more than ever, we need continuity and stability.
If you examine the teams that finished above us, continuity was an important part of their success. Kenny Jackett, Mick Harford and Lee Bowyer had all been at their respective clubs in various capacities since at least the beginning of last season. The only exception is Barnsley, who appointed Daniel Stendel in the close season. However, Stendel undoubtedly benefited from having the core of his squad already at the club upon his arrival, a luxury not afforded to Jack Ross. If you look across football last season, from the promotion-winning teams across the EFL to the Champions League finalists, the picture is largely the same. Back the right person and success will follow.
Obviously, continuity can be achieved regardless of credentials. But Ross showed enough last season to earn a second chance. Yes, we missed out on promotion, but we came agonisingly close. With all the hype that greeted Ross’ arrival, it is easy to forget that this is a man who has never taken charge of a team outside the Scottish Championship and landed the job three seasons into his managerial career. His inexperience has shown at times, but the lessons he has learned will stand him in good stead this year.
When you are within touching distance of success, there is no need to scrap everything and start again. When the likes of Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, and Simon Grayson were let go, it was because there was little worth salvaging from their respective messes. Starting from scratch was the easy option when the club had nothing to lose by taking such drastic action. With Ross, the foundations are there for future. Retaining him does not mean that we acknowledge the mistakes of last season and accept the same in this one. It means recognising the good with the bad, and giving him the opportunity to make the changes that will push us over the line.
Retaining Jack Ross comes with its own pressures. Any poor spells will, understandably, intensify calls for his head. But mid-season managerial sackings rarely work when chasing titles, even if firefighter managers have become a staple of relegation battles. Another season at this level is a dark mark on the club’s history, but with this group, success is within reach. It is important to reflect on where we have fallen short last season and tweak things where needed, without unnecessary wholesale changes. Then, we go again.