Hibs next manager: An in-depth look at why Jack Ross has the tools for the job

The former Sunderland and St Mirren boss is set to be announced as the next manager of Hibs. Craig Fowler looks at the coaching career of the man selected to replace Paul Heckingbottom

Tuesday, 5th November 2019, 4:47 pm
Updated Friday, 15th November 2019, 3:36 pm

Few managers have come out of the Scottish lower leagues in the last decade with a reputation as strong as that of Jack Ross.

He pulled off one of the most miraculous jobs in living memory, somehow managing to salvage St Mirren's status as a Championship club despite the Buddies appearing dead and buried halfway through the campaign, before leading them to the title the following season.

Even prior to that incredible turnaround there existed a queue of players who were more than happy to sing his praises. As assistant to Ian Murray at Dumbarton and then manager of Alloa Athletic, he became known as a coach that footballers desperately wanted to play for, especially at the part-time level.

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Jack Ross left his role at Sunderland in early October.

"He's the best coach in the sense that the sessions he puts on are absolutely fantastic. You'll not hear somebody say anything different that's worked under him," former Dumbarton defender Andy Graham told The Pele Podcast. "I would challenge you to find someone even if they weren't in the team, even if they weren't a big part of the squad, they would still say training was really, really good. He would put on so many different sessions for us, you didn't know what you were going into every night."

"He speaks really well, the way he talks to people," said Neil Parry, who played in goal for Ross at Alloa. "And I would say that part-time football is harder than most people would think in terms of getting the balance. People have jobs, you have to manage people in different ways and Jacko did it perfectly.

"In my experience he's good at managing people, he's good at recruitment, his training is excellent; doing shape and things, he would get his message across because it does need to be done. But it wouldn't be overkill, you'd never get people looking at their watch and wondering when we would go into small-sided games. He would do it with a balance that made it enjoyable."

Aside from anecdotal evidence, there was plenty of encouragement from the bottom line for St Mirren to go after their former player. Dumbarton had finished in fifth place in the Championship during Ross' last season at the club, just a few points short of reaching the play-off places and the chance to compete for a spot in the Premiership.

From there he was head-hunted by Hearts to become their under-20s boss. He would remain in the role for just over a year before leaving abruptly.

It wouldn't take him long to land on his feet, replacing Danny Lennon at Alloa with the Clackmannanshire club struggling against relegation to League One. Though he was unable to rescue the part-time side, there was enough improvement to convince the board to keep him in the position even after their fate was sealed. A flying start to the following season in League One meant his stature in the game didn't waver and St Mirren prized him away in October 2016.

It goes without saying, there's a big difference between full-time and part-time football and it initially appeared that the jump up would prove too much for the young manager, especially when he climbed into the ground after a St Mirren defeat to chat with the disgruntled supporters who'd once again booed his team from the park.

January changed everything, though. Ross was able to recruit players of higher quality and a key team meeting played a significant part in the team's form doing a complete 180.

"We all went in and he had the fixtures up on the board and he said, 'right lads, let's all sit down and come up with a plan, a strategy, a common goal to work towards so we can keep ourselves in this league,' which for me was brave," said Rory Loy, another Pele Podcast interviewee who Ross had signed on loan from Dundee in that window.

"This was a team in January that had only won two games all season, so it was a brave move to get us in there looking up at Hibs, Dundee United, all these hard away fixtures. At the same time you have to be old enough and sensible enough not to say we'll win every game. You want to be realistic.

"So he sat us in groups, we chatted and compared for about an hour and a half and he got us doing everything we needed to do so that we were all pushing in the same direction.

"He put me in against Dundee United and I played well, so he pulled me aside and said, 'that's the Rory Loy I need, that's why I brought you here.' So we won that game 3-2, so we're beating Dundee United, then we're beating Hibs, then we're going to Falkirk and getting a point, beating Queen of the South away. These are tough fixtures and it just snowballed and snowballed, and Jack Ross was a huge part of that, getting everyone pulling in the right direction."

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In the end it didn't matter that Ross was used to working in part-time football and here he was coaching players every day, because he was the kind of manager who just knew how to interact with players, how to push their buttons and how to keep them happy even when they should be frustrated at their lack of first-team opportunities.

"He takes the subs in training," Loy continued. "He'd say: 'I know it's crap, I know it's crap being in this group instead of that group, but we've won so I'm going to pick the same team again, I can't change that. That's football. So I'm going to take you for a session now, I'm going to make sure that you're fit. Don't do it for me, do it for yourself. Feel free to have a little bite about me or say to yourself in the car that you should be playing, get your frustration out but don't do anything detrimental to the team.'

"You couldn't help but respect that. All of the sudden you had a different mindset, you're working hard but with a smile on your face. He squeezed every percentage he could out of every player because he knew he was going to need everyone. So many managers will go with the starting XI on a Monday. For me, the subs are the one that need the little cuddle.

"Jack Ross had man-management ability in abundance. It might seem like little things, but these little things add up into a big thing."

The Midas touch did not follow him to Sunderland, where he moved in the summer of 2018 after securing St Mirren's status as a Scottish Premiership side once again.

It looked like the perfect job. The Wearside club had suffered successive relegations, were viewed as far too big to be playing in England's League One, and had a wage bill that absolutely dwarfed the rest of the competition. In fact, the £15 million spent on player salaries last season was the most ever spent by a club at that level. All Ross had to do was perform the minimum expected of him and his career trajectory would continue on an upward trend. Instead, he was sacked earlier this season after little over a year in the job.

It was a lesson in football being much more complicated than we often perceive. Ross may have had the deepest pockets, but he was entering a football market where he had little experience of working during his playing career and none in management. With only 10 players in the building on his first day of training he was forced into signing almost an entire squad. His recruitment, which had been a strong point at both St Mirren and Dumbarton, ultimately let him down.

Still, he would endure a sliding doors moment that in years to come will likely still cause him to pause and think 'what if...'. Though the start of the season had been unconvincing they were still in a strong position to win the title when, in the January window, the decision was made to sell leading goalscorer Josh Maja to Bordeaux rather than lose him for nothing when his contract expired in the summer.

Ultimately it would come back to bite Sunderland when the Black Cats ran out of lives towards the conclusion of the campaign, winning just once in their final seven fixtures and falling to fifth place in the table. Though they would make to Wembley and a meeting with Charlton in the play-off final, they lost 2-1 to an injury-time winner.

He kept his job during the summer, but on the prerequisite that lessons from the previous term had been learned and there would be no hiccups the following campaign. When October arrived and Sunderland were in sixth place, the decision was made to relieve him of his duties.

There exists a feeling the pressure of getting such a large club - with 24,000 season-ticket holders - out of the third tier got the better of Ross, which isn't what any Hibs fan would want to hear about their new manager. The Leith side are big enough in their own right and there will be immediate expectation for hi, to come in and immediately hit the ground running, something Ross hasn't managed at any of his stops as a No.1.

But back in an environment he's comfortable inhabiting, with the added drive of getting one over on his former employers across town, it seems the ideal place for the 43-year-old to rebuild his once glowing reputation.