Ross Speaks Out

Jack Ross has given his first interview following his dismissal from Sunderland.

On getting over the sack…

“People say, ‘Take a month off, take your head away from it and do nothing’, but I’ve not really been able to do that. I don’t feel … I don’t feel relaxed. I’m not great at that anyway, not great at sitting at peace. I’ve got really close friends at the club and I chat to them. I’ve got affection for the players who are there, for the staff I left behind. I miss working. I find it difficult not working, because I enjoy it. So, when I’m asked how I am, I suppose it’s feeling slightly surreal. Not because I don’t accept, I’m not manager anymore, but because I’m in that limbo stage. I’m jumping from thing to thing. Something needs done in the house? Right, I’ll do that for a bit. Then I think, ‘I’d better go on the computer’. I’ve already updated my CV. Has anyone phoned, texted? It’s not settling into any sort of routine and I’ve had a routine life for a long time. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Looking back on his time at SAFC

“I’m so critical of myself that I immediately started thinking about what I could have done better. First and foremost, it was about not delivering on what I wanted to do, which was return the club to the Championship. From day one, I said promotion is what I wanted, so I can’t set goals like that and then bristle at criticism. If people say I failed because of that, fine. But in terms of failing in my time at the club, I’d argue with that until I was blue in the face. Because they don’t see the stuff we had to deal with. That job is tough. Ask me for one word to describe it and I’d say ‘challenging’. It was brilliant, but it was challenging. It’s a brilliant club and a difficult club, as well. And I don’t think I’m the only Sunderland manager to have said that. Some people will say we changed the mentality and others will say, ‘yeah, in League One’. I lost one league game at the Stadium of Light. That’s pretty damn good. ‘Yeah, in League One’. I think a lot of the things we did were good, but you’ll get people who’ll call it shit. I understand the need for the club to get back up the leagues, but it’s just how to do it in the best way moving forward. Straight away? It might be, it might not be. How we measure success and failure in football is very black and white, but I loved managing the club. And I don’t regret taking the job for a second. Sunderland has a really strong identity in terms of this historic club with a really big fan-base and everything that goes with it, but does it fight with itself in understanding what it really is, where it is at the moment and where it needs to go? I think it does, yeah. It fights with itself constantly.”

The first thing Ross did after being fired was call his dad…

“I was able to speak to my dad on the phone, very briefly, before the news came out and just before he hung up he said, ‘Are you alright?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, listen, I got released at 18 as a footballer. Is it worse than that? No’. Because at 18, you think your world has ended. That’s really, really, really difficult. That takes a long time to get over. This? This hurts. It’s sore and it’s your pride and all those things, but I’m 43 years old, I’ve built up a level of experience through life and I’ve got a wife and kids to look after, so you get on with things. Maybe some people I know would underestimate how much this bothers me because they’d say I hide it quite well, but it bothers me a lot. What am I going to do? Do I cry about it, am I going to fold? No.”

On the negative vibe that’s built this season

“You could feel a difference from pre-season almost,” he says. “League One went from being a novelty to being intolerable; that was the way somebody put it and it was a brilliant way of describing it. That’s a bizarre set of circumstances and it’s not healthy as a manager. The dynamics in that change are difficult. So it goes to that feeling of ‘need to win, need to win, need to win’. Do you always need to win? Yeah, of course, but it’s a different feeling. Just win. You might not read about yourself or search for it, but if there’s a noise around you, around everything, it’s pretty impossible not be aware of it. There was a feeling for a while around the place that wasn’t particularly positive. How do you get out of that fog?”

On going back into SAFC to say goodbye to his staff…

“I met the players, my extended staff, everybody who worked at the academy, the coaches, the cleaning and maintenance staff, all the under-18 and under-23 players,” he says. “For four hours, I couldn’t get out of my office for people coming in to chat. And then I went to Black Cat House in the afternoon to see the staff there and then went out for a dinner with a few of them. And then that was me. I just felt that everything we’d been through together and what we’d done was deserving of me offering my gratitude in the right way. I didn’t just want to skulk away. In the fullness of time, I’ll be glad I did that, because there was so much positive for me there. I hope and think people enjoyed my time. I was in that leadership position … In terms of that seniority at the training ground, it was just me. When I was leaving, for those last couple of days, I had to show this sense of, ‘Yeah, I’m dealing with it, it’s fine.’ It was almost like an act. There’s an element of that in management anyway. In fact, there’s a lot of it; press conferences, what you say to players at times, when you might be feeling a completely different way inside. On the inside, it was emotional for me. When I got home, the emotional side of it …”

Why it took three days to speak to Stewart Donald

“He’d called me, but I wanted to take stock. I rang back to thank him for the opportunity and wish him all the best. We had a perfectly cordial conversation. I actually said to him, ‘This isn’t about some of things that happened at the end that could have been handled better or whether this is right or wrong’. It was a case of ‘Right, OK, I’ve put a line through it and that’s it. Like anything, you go into a football club and you don’t really know how it works until you’re there,” Ross says. “I can do a lot myself. When I was managing Alloa (Athletic), I used to open the stadium. We were part-time and I had keys for the ground so I’d go over during the day and just made it as good as it can be, but at a club of Sunderland’s size, do you need support? Yeah, I think you do. Do you need people around the city? Possibly, but in terms of being that focal point within the training ground, it was me. The first conversation I had with Stewart, he showed me the squad and said ‘They’ll all be gone, it’ll be a clean slate’. Maybe they didn’t think they’d want to play in League One … but that first pre-season was anything but a complete rebuild. It was just bonkers. The structure of the club was never where I wanted it to be, although that’s not to say I’m right,” he says now. “Ultimately, there are a lot of people who have outlasted me. But it was a great experience in terms of what do you need above and below you to make it work. I think I showed very little in terms of not being happy; it was important I did that, because people looked to me to set the tone.”

On his ultimate failure at SAFC

“We ended up losing the play-off final, but it meant there were a lot of games at the end of the season and we weren’t great, which ultimately cost us,” Ross says. “With Josh, it’s easy to say in hindsight, but I believe he would have scored the same amount of goals in the second half of the season, because why wouldn’t he? I never, ever wanted him to leave the club.”

On the presence of Netflix

“I’m consistent. I didn’t want it because it felt like another distraction. If cameras are omnipresent, it’s impossible not to be aware of them. The guys behind it were great, but it was another thing to think about. They were trying to make a gripping television programme, I’m trying to be a successful manager.”

On losing the play off final

“I wrestle with myself about what I could have done differently,” he says. “The play-off final will forever cripple me in that respect. It was a relentless and hard season and losing in that manner was so tough. I reflected on it, not from the perspective of whether I could do it again, but more that I hadn’t done what I set out to do. And then it was back to work I got a bit of stick and that’s fine, it happens,” Ross says. “After the game, we came out and beside the coach there were kids asking for autographs and pictures. I would never not do that; I’d had a tough afternoon and I could have put my head down and got on the bus, but I’m happy to talk to fans and I remember how I felt as a kid loving football. I’d never walk past anybody in that way. So while I’m having my picture taken with a nine-year-old kid, I’m getting a 50-year-man giving me abuse. He was shouting, ‘Fuck off back to Scotland’. That’s not me criticising Sunderland fans, because I’m sure it happens at every club, but it’s not right, that. People seem to think it’s acceptable in football. No human being could enjoy that. Sometimes, you just get back on the bus, shake your head and think ‘Wow.’”

What happens next

“Management is the right fit for me,” Ross says. “I’d go back into it tomorrow. I just like the buzz I get from it. I’m open-minded. I’d go abroad, I’d stay in England. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Don’t chase things, because if you chase something you’ll get it but it might not be right’ and that’s good advice,” he says. “But there’s that little bit of fear there, too. I just enjoy working. I’d like to think the people who worked with me would say I’ve got very little ego, so if I’d been a disaster, I would say I crashed and burned,” he says. “Even this season, we went to Burnley and Sheffield United in the League Cup, two Premier League clubs, and won and even that was … ah, but it doesn’t really matter now. I never once took the job for granted. I left with my head held high. Maybe some people will say ‘fuck off’ to that, but it’s genuinely how I feel.”