Sunderland sacked their manager Jack Ross on Tuesday after an unconvincing start to the League One campaign but just where did it go wrong for the Scot?
All in, Ross took charge of 75 games for Sunderland losing just 10 of them, but it was the number of draws and laboured performances that had fans questioning his ability to gain promotion which has led to his dismissal.
For many the trigger might have been pulled in May after defeat to Charlton in the League One Play-Off final. By Ross’ own admission that result deemed the season a failure as the Black Cats were summoned to another season in the third tier – just the third in their entire history.
However, owner Stewart Donald kept faith in his man, backing him to succeed over the summer and even suggesting he should be looking to break the 100-point barrier this season. The assumption being that Ross would start the season well and have Sunderland looking the likely contenders for promotion they feel they ought to be. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite gone to plan for Ross with Saturday’s shocking defeat against Lincoln at Sincil Bank the final straw.
Sunderland currently lie in sixth place in the table, eight points behind leaders Ipswich Town, which on the face of it doesn’t appear to be cause for a sacking. But scratch beneath the surface and the disgruntlement among fans can’t be argued with.
It is clear performances have not improved so far this season with the same old mistakes and outcomes already plaguing Sunderland’s promotion bid – even the win at Accrington Stanley in September was met with criticism due to the lacklustre nature of the victory. It just feels as though unless some of the individual talents of an Aiden McGeady or a Chris Maguire bail them out, then Sunderland struggle to win games. There’s no flair or confidence that often befits a promotion winning team.
But where did the tide start turning for Ross? After a positive start to life at Sunderland, the drop in performances became notably present since Christmas time last year. Defeat at Fratton Park days before Christmas led to a run of disappointing results and displays. Did Ross revert into his shell tactically at this point? The crowd of 46,000 on Boxing Day were rewarded with a fortunate win over Bradford City before a poor draw with Shrewsbury Town three days later on Wearside.
The New Year began with just two wins in eight games, a run which included crucial games in hand over their promotion rivals Luton and Barnsley. Although results did pick up over the early Spring period, performances remained laboured. Victories were churned out rather than comfortably earned.
March ended with a trip to Wembley for the Checkatrade Trophy final and a defeat to Portsmouth on penalties. Did that Wembley defeat cause a knock on effect? Initially no, as victories at Accrington and Rochdale followed, but the games were piled up as a result and Sunderland once again failed to capitalise on their games in hand. After the win at Spotland, Sunderland had seven games remaining, were second in the table, level on points with Barnsley but held two games in hand over them. Somehow, they managed to throw it away and finish fifth in the table.
It is that period in April where many started to doubt Ross. A dismal run of one win in those final seven games, including an absurd 4-5 defeat at home to Coventry City, meant Sunderland would have to go up via the Play-Offs. Another poor display against Charlton in the final and that was that. The season was over. Sunderland had failed.
Unfortunately for Ross, despite possessing arguably a weaker squad this time, he has failed to ignite his players at the beginning of this season. A drab opening day draw with Oxford United was just the start fans did not want to see; it was no different to anything in 2019 so far and another 1-1 draw. The first away game at promotion rivals Ipswich did little to improve morale either as Sunderland were dominated for large parts of the game – miraculously escaping with a draw.
Ross needed results and a performance and he got it at the Stadium of Light against Portsmouth but the following game at Rochdale was another slog. It was a victory that left you scratching your head, far from convincing. A routine win against Wimbledon was backed up with an excellent result at Burnley in the Carabao Cup and the feeling that maybe Ross had turned a corner and was beginning to rope in some of those questioning supporters, but a humiliating defeat at Peterborough three days later allowed the vultures to circle once more.
Since then it has been pretty much as you were with Ross on the brink with each passing game where points were dropped. The draw at Bolton was the final straw for most with the Scot’s days seemingly numbered since. He was extended the opportunity to oversee a win against MK Dons before the Lincoln debacle saw fan poles totalling 90%+ in favour of axing Ross.
And so, goes another managers tenure at the Stadium of Light. Let it be said that Ross didn’t do a bad job for Sunderland. He came in as a relative unknown and steadied an all but sunken ship. He missed out on his target of promotion in the 94th minute of the Play-Off final. He had Sunderland competing.
The problem was it wasn’t quite good enough. There was never any resounding displays. He never had Sunderland at the top of the League One table and only occupied second spot for a small number of weeks. It is a slump he just hasn’t been able to halt and for one reason or another, Ross always had Sunderland playing catch up instead of being the ones pressing down on the accelerator.
In League One, Sunderland are a big club and given what supporters have had to endure in recent years they can be forgiven for wanting to challenge for automatic promotion. We will never know if Ross would have achieved that this season, but the early signs, coupled with last season’s evidence, were that he would not and that is why he was dismissed.
The stats will suggest Ross is one of Sunderland’s more successful managers in terms of win percentages, but ultimately it wasn’t enough and the performances of recent months have left a little too much to be desired.