Jack Ross: The inside story on how and why he became Sunderland's ideal choice for the years ahead
There was one box that Jack Ross didn't tick.
When Sunderland’s new regime began their search for Chris Coleman’s replacement, they had in mind a manager with a strong record in League One. At that stage, gambling on a rookie seemed unlikely.
Even as recently as Monday, Stewart Donald told the assembled media that while not essential, a track record of success in the lower leagues was preferential.
Donald, though, was privately beginning to believe that the St Mirren boss was the outstanding candidate for the role. References from north of the border were overwhelmingly strong, and while Ross may not have started the process as number one choice, he quickly became it.
It was the same for Ross, who began the week seemingly destined for Ipswich.
Sunderland’s interest in Chris Wilder was well known and strong. It was Wilder whose direct, uncompromising style had begun Oxford United’s rise, a story close to the heart of the new regime, from the conference nearly a decade ago and he was the closest thing to guaranteeing League One success.
Live Sunderland AFC breaking news through the day His numbers are second to none and he has done it playing an eye-catching brand of robust, attacking football.
There was always a suspicion that his interest was strategic and so it proved, signing a new deal at boyhood club Sheffield United.
Ross was already beginning to win support behind the scenes at Sunderland by this stage; Paul Hurst another who, while off the table as he prepared for a League One playoff final this weekend, was admired.
He would have been a fine candidate but eventually, the new regime decided to act and move for the man who they felt had come out strongest in every other category.
Ross, without question, walks into a job that is bigger, tougher and more demanding than anything he has faced in his football career. It is for both parties a gamble but one they see as worth taking.
That, in a sense, was part of the attraction. To appoint a manager who is on an upward curve and sees Sunderland as the kind of opportunity they may never get again. That is the template for the squad to be built this summer and so it was felt a statement needed to be made.
Jack Ross turned down 'lucrative offers' to become Sunderland bossRoss also brings a commitment to full-throttle football that is deemed essential to restoring a connection in the Stadium of Light and above all else, getting the maximum out of Sunderland’s ‘hefty budget’ in the third tier.
Ross is no footballing ideologue, as he outlined in an interview with TheTwoPointOne, saying: “The emergence and success of Barcelona in the Guardiola era almost ruined the game, and I mean in that in the nicest possible way.
“There became almost an obsession with replicating that style of football which isn’t possible in circumstances with the tools you have.”
He does, however, demand a high-pace game and puts intensity at the core of his training and tactics. St Mirren have been encouraged to play out from the back but they press hard and there is a significant emphasis on being direct when the ball reaches the final third.
Training has been built around firm repetition of finishing inside the box and creativity in the final third. In this sense, Ross is supported by James Fowler, the former Queen of the South manager who is now firmly established as his sounding board and right-hand man.
To produce the high-tempo football he desired, he had to overhaul his squad just months into his reign, signing ten players in a frantic January window that transformed the team’s fortunes. On Wearside he will find it tougher, unquestionably.
Donald has already said that recruitment will be manager driven and Ross will need to get right straight away and on a grand scale. Initially, recruitment had been one of the reasons why a manager with a strong working knowledge of the League One market was favoured. Sunderland is a club where recruitment has systematically failed and for all his coaching abilities, Ross will stand or fall on the players he can bring in.
What he does have at his disposal is a category one academy producing top talent, and this is a key reason why he has been handed the task.
Ross’ drive for dynamism in his squad offers a natural home for young players and it was telling that early into his reign in Paisley, with the team struggling, he threw in two teenagers. Kyle Magennis went on to form the bedrock of his title-winning team, while Kyle McAllister quickly signed for Derby County.
Lewis Morgan has been superb this season and won a move to Celtic.
Jack Ross reacts after being confirmed Sunderland bossHis praise for Ross is effusive: “Jack played a massive part in the progress of St Mirren but there are other factors too – the chairman, the fans and the players,
“We got the results to stay in the Championship and then kicked on again this season. But most of the credit has to be attributed to Jack. He’s been brilliant for St Mirren and, rightfully, other clubs are looking at him.
“He’d be a massive loss to St Mirren but he deserves anything that comes his way.”
He will be expected to trust in and grow talent. The new regime see that as the one biggest advantage they have on teams outside the top tier and thought Ross stood out as the best candidate to capitalise on it.
He also seen as an articulate communicator, both with players, supporters and executives.
That is something the new regime lost when Chris Coleman was sacked but it is crucial if they are to make good on their pledge of reconnecting the club with the community.
Whether Ross can ultimately make a success of the job remains to be seen.
His reputation in Scotland is strong, seen as one of the brightest coaching minds to come from the country in a number of years. Tony Fitzpatrick, chief executive of St Mirren, was handed his debut for the club by Sir Alex Ferguson and has not been shy in stating that he sees comparisons between the two.
At St Mirren, he has been credited with implementing a holistic plan for the club and Sunderland hope he will help do the same on Wearside.
“When Jack walked in, we were bottom of the league so he has done an incredible job,” Fitzpatrick said.
“ He galvanised not only the club but the whole community.
“I’m going to mention my favourite person again. Sir Alex Ferguson did it 40 years ago and I’ve never felt anything like that since.
“We enjoyed success, we’ve won leagues but really, as a crowd staying behind you, it has been fantastic.
“Jack was delighted that Sir Alex gave him a phone call on Friday. He is a big fan of him and has read his book on leadership qualities.
“He has never met him or had spoken to him so the phone call was a big, big thing for him. Jack said himself he used a lot of the things Sir Alex’s told him on the phone when he gave the team talk for the Livingston game.
“The message was to trust in your players. When I listen to Jack now he speaks very much like Sir Alex and even more so in his younger days.
“Jack speaks from the heart and Sir Alex does likewise. That inspires people. It gets people doing things they normally wouldn’t be able to do and that is fantastic.”
Mike Mulraney, Ross’ first Chairman at Alloa, had much the same to say.
There, Ross failed to beat the drop after taking over but started the next season in strong fashion and remains well thought-of.
Mulraney said: “I knew it wouldn’t be long before Jack would move on from Alloa, even when he wasn’t getting it right.
“I actually extended his contract before he turned the corner with his results.
“I just knew I had the right manager. I never doubted for a minute that he would become an excellent manager.
“If you keep doing the right things it will eventually work.
“Jack is a capable, intelligent, balanced character. He transfers those life skills into football and it works.
“I know he also had a sticky start at St Mirren and it was good to see they stuck by him as well. And they got the rewards for that.
“I absolutely believe that he will go on to great things. I think he has everything you need to become a top manager.
“If and when he leaves St Mirren they should applaud him and appreciate what he contributed to the club.
“Nothing makes me happier than to see how well he has done at St Mirren.
“He has the skill set not only to become one of the best in Scotland, but one of the best in Britain.
“There was never a doubt in my mind. It is easy to say that with hindsight but clearly I believed it as I gave him his first job.
“Jack Ross didn’t do well because of Alloa. All we were was a small step on his journey to become one of the top managers in Britain.”
He has been courted in England, with Barnsley and Ipswich both keen on appointing him.
At Sunderland, he faces new challenges, above all else the raft of players who need to be moved on. Both Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman wanted a deeper and more significant overhaul of the squad and both will feel the inability to achieve it was central to their failure. It is absolutely imperative that Sunderland’s new regime does whatever it takes to hand the new manager a blank canvas on which to draw his vision.
Ross is not the first highly-rated Scottish coach to move south of the border and for many it has not been plain sailing. Sunderland, too, is a club which makes a habit of disappointing managers and damaging their morale.
Stewart Donald told talkSPORT on Wednesday that the new manager would get time and that losing in the playoffs next season would not necessarily be deemed a disaster. It was an interesting comment for there is absolutely no doubt that Ross will be under pressure to deliver results and quickly. There is a big picture vision to his appointment but one that will not survive a failure to turn things around the pitch.
It is a gamble and an immense challenge.
The last time a St Mirren manager moved to Sunderland, Johnny Cochrane went on to win the English title and the FA Cup.
Such is the low ebb that Sunderland have fallen too, Ross will be a hero should he win League One and the Checkatrade Trophy.
This is a dramatic departure from Sunderland’s managerial model. It won’t be dull.