What happened to Jack Ross at Sunderland? The inside track on the Hibs managerial favourite
Jack Ross has emerged as favourite for the Hibs manager’s job after Paul Heckingbottom was sacked this week.
The 46-year-old’s stock is high after he guided St Mirren to a Championship title and was linked with the Scotland job in April prior to Steve Clarke’s appointment.
However, his career took a knock when he was sacked by Sunderland last month and perceptions of him south of the border may be different to in Scotland.
With Ross linked with both the Hearts and Hibs jobs, Sunderland Echo correspondent James Copley - who witnessed Ross’ spell at the North East club first-hand - sheds some light on what went wrong.
Ross inherited a chaotic set-up at Sunderland when he walked into the Stadium of Light in May 2018.
Sunderland had suffered back-to-back relegations, with supposed steady managers David Moyes and Chris Coleman spectacularly failing on Wearside.
With the club in financial free-fall and at its lowest ebb since 1987, the club’s much-maligned American billionaire owner Ellis Short agreed to sell up to Stewart Donald.
Big-earning Premier League era mercenaries were axed, with Jack Rodwell, Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong entering contractual disputes with the club.
As a result, on the first day back at training after the summer’s break, Ross watched from the window of his office at the Academy of Light as just 11 senior players reported back for pre-season.
Despite the challenges, though, the Scot rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in on the training pitch.
Recruitment, led in the main by Donald and Tony Coton, provided the manager with a strong League One squad on paper, although Ross missed out on his first-choice strikers. Lyle Taylor ultimately joined rivals Charlton Athletic and he was unable to secure the services of Florian Kamberi, ironically a player he could soon be working with at Hibs.
Sunderland had to make do with Charlie Wyke and a young, bright novice named Josh Maja, but despite the blow and, ironically, a Taylor penalty, Ross masterminded an opening day last-ditch win home win over Lee Bowyer’s Charlton side.
The wild celebrations that followed Lynden Gooch’s 96th-minute winner were staggering and up there with any of Sunderland’s best moments in the Premier League.
The malaise of disappointment had been lifted, Sunderland had their mojo back and Ross was affecting games with shrewd mid-game tactical adjustments.
Interference from above
Maja had taken to League One life like a duck to water. A teenager until a day after Boxing Day, the striker netted 15 games in 24 appearances before a drawn-out transfer saga resulted in him being sold to Bordeaux in January.
Ross had lost his star man and main goal-scorer mid-season, despite his best efforts to urge player, agent and the club’s board to agree on a new contract.
Maja was replaced by the deadline-day big-money purchase of Will Grigg, a striking monster at League One level, with Donald the driver of the deal - not Ross.
The Northern Ireland international failed to make the same stunning impact as his predecessor, while elsewhere the order came from above to take Checkatrade Trophy seriously, despite Ross’ reservations about the competition.
Despite the off-field distractions, Ross knuckled down once more and guided Sunderland to the Checkatrade Trophy final.
A trip to London provided supporters a weekend away and a chance to show off their support in numbers.
Of course, as tends to be the way in the North East, Sunderland failed to capture the trophy in the final against Portsmouth - losing on penalties after some questionable tactical decisions whilst Sunderland had the lead.
Focus shifted towards the third tier. Could Sunderland go up automatically as was mooted before the season began?
The expectation was rightly high. Sunderland boasted ex-Premier League talents like Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oviedo and had a good squad and huge budget compared to their divisional rivals.
But from a promising position, albeit with a hectic run-in, they capitulated at the business end of the season as a seven-game run in April saw the Black Cats take just five points from a possible 21 and ship five goals at the Stadium of Light to Coventry City.
A highly disappointing fifth-placed finish was masked by revenge over Kenney Jackett’s Pompey in the semi-finals, setting up a winner-takes-all tie with Sunderland’s opening day opponents Charlton.
The season had come full circle.
Thanks but no thanks
But in an ironic twist of footballing fate, it was ex-transfer target Lyle Taylor and former Newcastle United midfielder Bowyer who enjoyed the last laugh.
Sunderland were defeated with virtually the last kick of the game despite being gifted an early goal - but in truth, Ross’ boys didn’t turn up.
The double Wembley disappointment, coupled with Sunderland’s poor form in League One, created a vocal disgruntled section of Mackem fans. Ross had arrived with a reputation for fast-paced, attacking, front-foot football but all too often, his side sat back on leads rather than go for the jugular as their two Wembley performances showed.
A whopping 19 draws in the league during the season were ultimately to blame for failure to secure automatic promotion.
Despite having the summer to right his wrongs and correct Sunderland’s play-off hangover, Ross was unable to reinvigorate and rejuvenate his side.
With Sunderland sitting in sixth with 19 points from 11 and following disappointing results away to Bolton Wanderers and Lincoln City, Ross was axed.
History may be kinder
History may be kinder to Ross, though. The Scot managed to bring the club a period of stability, professionalism and respect after years of mismanagement and chaos.
He left the North East with the third-highest win percentage of any Sunderland manager, albeit at a far lower level than most of his 36 permanent predecessors.
In the top-four English divisions, only Liverpool and Manchester City had lost fewer games than Sunderland since Jack Ross’ appointment.
Of course, that doesn’t matter in the slightest if you fail to win the big games.
There is hope for Ross, though. After all, he was only two Wembley wins away from becoming a cult hero revered forevermore on Wearside.