Stick or Twist

It’s fair to say Sunderland have yet to send any shockwaves around League One this season as they bid to escape this level at the second attempt, but if manager, Jack Ross, wants to remain one of us then he needs to improve. Fast.

Once again Sunderland are immersed in the managerial dilemma of stick or twist. Where it was often fire fighting and panic button pressing in trying to save the sinking ship in the Premier League that managers on Wearside lost their job, it is now an already sunken ship with the manager struggling to bring it afloat again who looks certain to lose his.

Saturday’s unacceptable display and result at Bolton Wanderers, the latest in what is already becoming an all too familiar pattern this season for Ross, justifiably brought out the regularly documented so called ‘tough atmosphere’ from Sunderland fans, suggesting it seems only a matter of time now before Ross is relieved of his duties.

If we are being honest, there was a very strong case for Ross’ dismissal to come on the way out of Wembley Stadium in May after the conclusion of the Play-Off final. Defeat that day, by his own admission, condemned the season to “a failure.” And he was right, it was. With the squad available to Sunderland last year and the budget afforded there was a strong argument to suggest that promotion should have been achieved. Of course, football does not always work like that and somewhat unforeseen; last year’s League One was a competitive one - five teams securing over 80 points and three of those teams going on extended unbeaten runs.

Given the predicament Sunderland were in 12-months prior to that Wembley date with Charlton Athletic however, you might have been be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a complete disaster of a campaign. For at that stage who knew if Sunderland weren’t going to continue on their trend of relegations through the leagues? In the wake of what has happened at Bury and Bolton since, who’s to say Sunderland wouldn’t have found themselves in a similar situation? There was a monumental turnaround required at this football club and ultimately it only failed in the 94th minute of the final game of the season.

However, again football does not work like that. Once you begin to peel back the layers of Sunderland’s season last year and pick apart some of the favourable looking stats, it’s clear to see why frustration has crept in amongst the fans. A less than 50% win record in the league and the number of draws left a lot to be desired. But it’s not just results. It is the nature of those results. The lacklustre performances. The good fortune to draw at home to the likes of Wycombe Wanderers and Accrington Stanley and for while that may resemble disrespect and arrogance under the ‘you’ve got no god given right to win’ rule in football, if you are aiming for promotion then these are games which need to yield three points – not struggle to draw or create chances in.

Unfortunately, they never and the 19 draws ultimately cost Ross promotion. Instead of putting teams away he appeared conservative in the second half of the season. For all of the attacking potency allegedly available, there was very little product. Where promotion rivals would brush teams aside emphatically, the Stadium of Light was subject to dog fights – the same of which are already happening this season too.

In theory, Ross was an underwhelming yet astute managerial appointment by Stewart Donald. For those who are oblivious to football beyond the English borders he was an unknown. For those aware of him he was an inexperienced rookie. But what Ross represented was a tearing up of the tried and tested formula which had contributed to Sunderland being in League One in the first place. For too long you could acknowledge middling teams achieve relative success with a young, up and coming manager at the helm. Someone who instilled his own philosophy [or at least a toned down one of Pep Guardiola such is the norm now] and beliefs into the club and was able to grow with the club over a period of time.

Ross ticked each of those boxes. He looked the part; fashionable, youthful, keen. He conducted himself admirably in press conferences. Initially his style of football was a breath of fresh air on Wearside as the high press allowed fans to become engaged from the first whistle. There was an energy in the team for once – yes it was at a lower level of football than fans have been accustomed to but it was acceptable and even enjoyable to watch at times.

But from Christmas time onwards, that approach has dissolved. There doesn’t appear to be any cohesion. The energy and fitness has disappeared. The round holes are now being filled with square pegs - seeing the likes of Luke O’Nien utilised at left back for example. The route one is painful. The pedestrian midfield and their five yard passes are ineffective. The ideas have gone. The diversity of options are limited.

For most fans, Ross was given a stay of execution after the Play-Off final under the assumption that this season would be different. Under the pretence that Sunderland would stamp their authority on the league this time around and be the team others would see as ‘the ones to catch,’ all while rejuvenating the brand of football once more. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Already we are triggering the mines which we stepped on so many times last season. Draws at home to Oxford and Rotherham compiled with Saturdays shambles at Bolton. The victory at Rochdale was fortunate while the win at Accrington was as demoralising as a 1-3 away win can be. It’s far from progressive and does little to exude hope of promotion this time around either.

In the aftermath of that Accrington victory Ross made the biggest cardinal sin of any manager by having a reserved jibe at fans for criticising the display, labelling them as “negative anchors” to the club. Unfortunately for Ross it is a slippery slope for managers who head down that road with supporters – just ask Steve Bruce.

And it does seem a long way back from here. Where many fans have been perched on the fence unsure which side to set foot down on, the majority now appear to have planted their feet on the ‘out’ side based on recent fan poles. And what are the arguments to keep Ross in his position? The desire for a manager to get it right and remain in charge for a sustained period of time? The imagery? The personality traits? Who the alternatives are? Or just in the hope that he gets it right? How far do those grounds for persistence continue while Sunderland continue to remain outside of the top two again?

Unfortunately for Sunderland they are in a unique period of a short termism mind-set as opposed to the long-term plans of recent managerial conundrums. The absolute necessity to get promoted this season must overrule anything, such is the sustainability of Sunderland being swamped at this level, and at the moment there seems no guarantee of that under Ross.

Despite 72 games under his belt there are still question marks as to whether or not he knows his best team and formation. There are still reservations about how he can turn these draws into the wins required for promotion. Ross is not doing a bad job per se but it is not enough. Just 13 wins out of the 32 league games in 2019 tells its own story. If last season was Ross’ debut album, he needed his second this season to be different, to have evolved, to be more ‘Colour And The Shape’ or ‘Nevermind.’ Instead, it seems very much as you were.