We interviewed Jack Ross on the eve of the season for ALS 253. That magazine is all but sold out, so we thought we’d publish it here for those who may have missed it…
A year is a long time in politics, in case you hadn’t noticed, and an even longer time in football. An awful lot has happened in the twelve months since ALS first met Jack Ross, so we sent our head honcho along to the Academy of Light, on the eve of the season, to quiz the gaffer on his formations, our new signings and being a football geek…
ALS: How’s the summer been for you? 69 days in total, the shortest in the history of our club…
JR: It’s been good, but a very short summer break, obviously. It’s not long, is it? You say it was 69 days from the Charlton game to the start of the new season against Oxford, so it’s a short summer. Nobody can work properly without a break, especially with the pressures in the game today, mentally you need a break. But this pre season’s been good compared to last season, a bit more calm and organised. Last year’s was frantic to say the least, this time, at least I’m coming back to a squad, and to a wee bit of stability, which helps as well.
ALS: The first time we chatted was just over a year ago, when everything was new, how does it feel twelve months on?
JR: I think every season that goes by as a manager you’re learning, as in every walk of life. You learn more, you gain experience. Memories in football fade fairly quickly in terms of where you were. Looking at where we were last summer, I’d argue that we’ve maybe overachieved, because we were in a proper mess. Certainly, coming back into the club now, a year down the line I think the stability and calmness around the place is better and that’s got to be reflected in results on the pitch, but as a club, not just the footballing side, we’re in a much better place.
ALS: It’s no secret that you’ve been looking at a new formation (three at the back) in pre season. Is that just an option, or something more permanent?
JR: We want to be more flexible this season, although the reality is that most players are more comfortable with a back four, cos most of them grew up with that and most of them play that. Pre season has given us a bit more time to work on that and it’s been good, but it’s not to say it’s set in stone and that’s the way we’ll play every week. It’s something we can use over the course of the season and it’s good for us to have that option either to start games with it or switch to it during games. Teams that have that flexibility have proved to be quite successful. You need the personnel to do it, and we didn’t recruit based solely on playing that way, but if you get someone who can play right back or right wing back it gives you options. We’ve recruited to try and address some of the deficiencies we had last season, and to make us a bit more adaptable as well.
ALS: Speaking of new recruits, let’s go through the new boys with your assessment of each. With Lee Burge was it important to get a keeper who could mix it in League One, but know that they’d be back up to Jon McLaughlin.
JR: Yes. We had to be pretty honest in recruitment and say Jon is first choice. Yes, you’re here to challenge but he’s in possession of the jersey. So, we needed a keeper who’d accept that, but who is equipped to play at the right level and we got lucky with Lee (Burge) ‘cos he’s played a lot of games for his age and knows this league pretty well. He’s already shown that he’s a more than capable goalkeeper and he trains really well in terms of pushing Jon. He’s delighted to be here; he wants to stay here and progress here. His attributes will give us real competition and also the comfort of knowing that should Jon be unavailable for any reason; we’ve got another good keeper at the club. It also allows Anthony Patterson, who’s got great attributes at a young age, to train with the others every day knowing that’s he’s effectively third choice.
ALS: Moving up the field a little, Conor McLaughlin is a decent height for a fullback and has a decent touch. Did you feel we were lacking a bit of height across the back line?
JR: I think as a squad we were, but it’s not all about height. If you had a team all of that stature, they’d probably be missing some of the ability that we have. If you have someone of that stature and all the ability, they’re probably not going to be playing at this level. We were looking to increase the stature throughout the squad, so Conor (McLaughlin) fitted the profile well, with his experience in this league and the league above, international experience, and he’s a real steady type and a good character. I’ve known Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, for a number of years and he spoke very highly of him. He’ll improve us.
ALS: Centre half was one of the positions that you must have been looking to strengthen…
JR: Yes, it was an area that we prioritised, goalkeeper, right back, and centre half, and Jordan Willis was our first choice by a long way. We knew there was interest from a higher level, so we had to work hard in terms of what we pitched to him, convince him that this is the best place to further his career. We put a lot of effort in, and it paid off. He’s at an age where he can get better, and when you’re recruiting you want players who want to go through the leagues with you, rather than ripping it up and starting again. And you have to be realistic and consider resale value. People have seen already what he gives us with his pace, something that we didn’t have last year. Last season, particularly at home when teams have hit us on the counter, we’ve now got someone who’s quick and whose recovery is good.
ALS: While we’ve lost two of our three left backs, I think Denver Hume, had he been fit, would have played a lot more last season, so are you looking to get cover there?
JR: It wasn’t ideal carrying three left backs, but we expected Bryan to leave last summer so we brought in Reece James, then Denver came through. This year, again, we didn’t know for certain what was happening with Bryan, so now we’ve got clarity on that, we know where we are. We’ll look to address that as the season progresses, but we’ve got enough cover, if you like, for that area, cos while he’s not a natural left back, Conor McLaughlin can play there, likewise Flanagan, who’s played a lot of his career as a fullback. The last thing we wanted was the squad to be too fat, so we had to wait on the confirmation of Bryan’s move.
ALS: Was George Dobson someone that you noticed last year, after all we played Walsall loads?
JR: I tend to focus on us during the game itself, but when I look back afterwards you notice the ones who’ve made an impression against us, and he was one. He’s another one who’s played a lot of games for his age, a bit like Luke O’Nien but younger, and I think it’s a good bit of business. He’s been great for us so far, we’re really pleased with him, and even though he was part of a team that lost its place in the league, he did really well. Again, talking about attributes, he’s got the height and the athleticism in the middle that we needed at times last year.
ALS: Talking about unbounded athleticism, what are your plans for Luke O’Nien? Use him more in midfield?
JR: Luke’s an interesting one. At the end of the season reporters were asking me if I would be playing him in midfield cos that’s what the supporters wanted, but the same supporters had just voted him young player of the season, as a fullback! Luke is probably better facing the game that with his back to it. I’ve had him higher up the pitch in pre season, but he enjoyed full back last year. We’ll keep the squad tighter by having people who can play in different roles. Before last season, he was just a midfielder, so now we’ve got another option. Let’s not pigeonhole him, because he’s got versatility.
ALS: So, perhaps as a wing back?
JR: He’s got a lot of attributes that would suit that role, bombs up and down, decent in the air, scores goals, and he learned a lot from last season. Denver as well is probably more suited to wing back as he’s still learning the game defensively but going forward is probably his biggest strength.
ALS: So, up front, Marc McNulty. Did you notice him as a young lad at Livingston?
JR: Yes. I was aware of him from a young age, so, yes, I’ve known of him since he first came through at Livingston. He’s had good moves in England and I looked hard at him in January when we lost Josh, but he’d not been playing a lot and I wasn’t sure how long he’d need to get up to speed. I kept a close eye on how he was doing at Hibs and he did well up there. What I expected to be honest, cos he’s a good player. With just Charlie and Will as out and out strikers, we were looking for somebody a wee bit different. His movement’s good, he’s a proper striker, and he’s got a wee bit about him, he’s just scored a hat-trick in a practice game against Hartlepool, he’ll back himself, he’s come to this club to do well. You need that attitude to come here.
ALS: I think as a striker you have to be confident, a bit cocky, even.
JR: Yes, but in a good way. He’s a brilliant boy. If you speak to him for ALS you’ll like him, he’s a very likeable boy, and he’s already thriving on the expectation. He knows he’s come to a club where the demands are there, but he’d rather have that than go somewhere for an easy ride.
ALS: We’ve had a few more Scottish players in, as well as your coaching staff, and over the years, the Scots seem to settle in the North East better than down south.
JR: Traditionally, he club’s had a strong Scottish connection, and Irish, probably because of the similarities in culture with people from this area. From a personal point of view, I love living in the North East, I’ve found it really enjoyable, and I think the Scottish players do tend to fit in quicker. Geographically it’s not that far away and they find similarities with the people who work at the club.
ALS: Talking of Scots, Dylan McGeouch is somebody I really liked last year, but for one reason or another didn’t get a real run in the side. He stuck around when he could have gone. What are your thoughts on him?
JR: I brought him to the club, so I obviously want him to be a success, not from an ego point of view, but because he’s come down from Scotland to show he’s a good player. I think he did it in little spots last season, but there’s difference between English and Scottish football, particularly the league we’re in at the moment, with games coming thick and fast and physically it’s different, so it was an adjustment for him. In the conversations I’ve had with him, I’ve said I wanted him to stay here because, you’re right, he is a good player, so we need to encourage him and he’s had a great pre-season. He’s done every session, every minute of every session, he’s been brilliant, and in games he’s been good. The only thing I can say to him is that he’ll get an opportunity, so it’s up to him to take it and be consistent in his performances. I’ve no doubt he’s got the ability to do it, so it’s about being as positive as he can in possession. He can do the forward passes as well as the neat and tidy stuff, and he’s in a good place at the moment, so I’m hoping that from the start of the season he kicks on with that.
ALS: At Sunderland I’m guessing that with Netflix, the local press, fan media and social media, press wise, it’s been a lot more intense than in previous jobs.
JR: There’s more media attention in Scotland than you imagine, as it is smaller, but the national media still have to fill a certain amount of pages, but the intensity and the focus here is huge. Probably the biggest difference is that every single decision you make here is examined. A lot today is about how it’s done, there’s a lot of hysterical reaction, but that’s just how it is. As far as the Netflix stuff went, Simon Grayson spoke quite a lot about it, I’m not sure if Chris has, but it’s not ideal if you’re a manager. Stewart and Charlie asked if I wanted it and I said I didn’t, but they went away and thought about it and decided that it was happening, so I was OK with that. It was all done sensibly and adult-wise. It was just my opinion as a football manager, they’re omnipresent. If you’re involved in a documentary, you’re buying in to being in it, but if you’re in it by default it’s a bit different. They’re making television, I’m managing a football club, it wasn’t an issue as such, but I had to look at the schedule for the week ahead. It was what it was. I didn’t give them dressing room access, because my opinion is that what I say to the players in the dressing room stays in the dressing room. I was probably quite accommodating otherwise, but I’m not daft, they’re making television and looking for stories. I let them film me analysing matches, there’s a lot of work goes into that, they probably won’t show it, but if I was watching the programme I’d be interested in that because I’m a proper football geek. They were probably interested in more sensational stuff.
ALS: I’m pretty OCD and I see that trait in you. You seem a very thorough and meticulous person? Is that fair?
JR: Yes. It’s tiring, because I don’t really switch off. I’ve always worked on the basis that as a manager, you’re in a job where there are quite a few uncontrollable, despite what people think, there are some things you can’t do anything about, so you have to be thorough, so that if anything goes wrong it’s not because of anything I’ve missed. I give the players as much information as I can. I have choices to make, but I don’t want to ever look in the mirror and think “I wish I’d done more.” You do look at decisions with hindsight and wonder if it was the right one, but I don’t want to think that I could have worked harder. But I am quite meticulous in what I do.
ALS: Finally, how pissed off were you after the Charlton game?
JR: Last season was draining, because there were a lot of games and a lot of emotion was involved. If you’d told me a year ago that Sunderland would be at Wembley twice in a few months, I’d have thought “great” but to lose them both, and in the manner that we did, it very was painful for everyone. In the 24 hours after that last game, against Charlton, you’re wondering if you can do it all again, but by Tuesday I was thinking “yeah, I can do that again” and I’d have been in for training on the Wednesday, if there’d been any. After the game, I had to behave in a certain way, speak to my players and staff, and the press. So emotionally it didn’t hit me until the next day, but it was gut-wrenching, properly painful. We put a lot into last season and if you’re not resilient and robust, you’ll think it’s unjust, but in your personal life or your work the brutal reality is that life must go on. You either wallow in it or you dust yourself down and say “right, let’s away again” and you’re right back into it.
ALS: Thanks for your time gaffer and good luck for the season.
JR: Thank you. You’re welcome and I need to pop into the Roker End Café for a coffee and maybe a pink slice!