In October 2016, with St Mirren on a downward spiral and looking like they had…
After weeks of speculation, Jack Ross was unveiled as the new Sunderland manager on Friday. The club from the North East of England has suffered back-to-back relegations in the last two years and now finds itself in League One, desperate for a manager who can turn the sleeping giant around. New Sunderland owner Stuart Donald believes Ross is capable – and it’s a very shrewd move from the Black Cats indeed.
Some eyebrows were raised down South when Ross was announced last week – just who was this manager, and what had he achieved? Why were Sunderland so determined to get him? The truth of the matter is that the appointment isn’t as left-field as it first seemed and, on paper at least, makes perfect sense for the club. At least, that’s what history tells us.
Ross had his first taste of management when he took over Dumbarton on an interim basis during the 2012/13 campaign, steadying the ship before Ian Murray’s arrival, then serving as an assistant to the new coach. Dumbarton ultimately stayed up that season, finishing a comfortable nine points clear of the relegation playoff spot. The following season, they did even better and finished fifth.
Ross then joined the backroom staff at Tynecastle as Hearts blitzed the Championship, promoting from within and playing attacking, entertaining football. This spell at Hearts, although it cannot be credited entirely to Ross, was no doubt factored in to Donald’s decision to pursue the ex-St Mirren boss. After all, here were a large club that had suffered a surprising relegation, a big fish in a little pond, with chaos behind the scenes when they were relegated the previous year. Robbie Neilson, with the help of Ross, got them back on track and into the Premiership. The similarities between Hearts then and Sunderland now are striking.
During the 2015/16 season, Ross took charge of Alloa around Christmas with the club looking like relegation certainties. Their form improved but it was too little, too late. Alloa went down but kept faith with the 41-year-old, keeping him in place for the following season. It was a good decision for the club – the next year, Ross had them in second place before leaving to join St Mirren. Again, this won’t have escaped Donald’s attention – Alloa were relegated, but Ross turned things around and got them challenging to get back into a higher division.
When Ross took the reins at St Mirren, things were looking pretty bad for the Paisley club. The Buddies started the season in dreadful form and appointed Ross to save the club from relegation – which he did comfortably. In the last 14 games of the season, St Mirren only lost on two occasions and they finished the campaign in seventh.
It was this season, however, that saw Ross gain national attention for his work and drew many admiring glances in his direction. With a full pre-season under his belt, Ross built a squad capable of challenging for the title, playing scintillating football at times. The Buddies usually played a fluid 4-2-3-1 system and raced into an early lead in the Championship and have never looked back. They finished the season as champions and Ross’ work was complete. Having initially saved them from relegation, just a year later Ross had them back in the top flight. The St Mirren boss was awarded the PFA manager of the year award for his achievement, ahead of the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Steve Clarke.
Ross’ career to date has shown that he excels at rebuilding jobs and getting clubs to turn over a new leaf. This is what Sunderland desperately require – someone who can improve the playing squad, bring back the fans and secure promotion to the Championship. There have been the usual disapproving sneers from some ill-informed members of the media about Ross’ credentials, but there is no arguing with his track record. Each club he’s worked at have found themselves in a similar situation to Sunderland now, and each time Ross exceeded expectations.
Cynics will say that Ross presented a cheap option and, given the club’s financial situation, his appointment was made more out of prudence than encouragement. There’s perhaps a degree of truth to this – after all, Sunderland currently have the thirteenth-highest wage bill in the UK, despite spending next season in England’s third tier. Luring Ross from St Mirren was a relatively low-cost measure with little risk attached for the club.
All in all, then, it looks like an excellent deal for Sunderland. They’ve appointed a coach who has a good track record of removing deadwood from a club, replacing it with young, exciting players. Ross has a superb record of rebuilding a squad and his attractive brand of football is likely to get the supporters onside pretty quickly. Youth players, if they’re good enough, will be given first-team opportunities and it’s a financially prudent move from a club desperate to cut costs. Ross seems to tick every box – all he has to do is keep doing what has worked previously for him and it might not be long until an even bigger club come along.