Meet the man helping Jack Ross rebuild Sunderland as he opens up on his role and partnership
James Fowler's last game in management saw him, ironically, come up against Jack Ross in the opposite dug-out.
It finished Queen of the South 2, Alloa Athletic 2.
Fowler had impressed in charge of the Dumfries side, thrown into the job when Jim McIntyre left for Ross County.
Like so many, however, Fowler had been given an early taste of the brutal nature that comes with management and from then he had his eye on returning as a coach or assitant.
Having heard good things about Ross’s coaching, he went to watch his sessions at Alloa and the pair obviously made an impression on each other.
Ross had Fowler in mind when he moved to St Mirren and from there their careers have taken off.
Fowler had always intended to follow Ross when he made his next step and the partnership has made a solid start on Wearside.
They have been methodical and measured in the face of a daunting in-tray, beginning to instil a new playing philosophy despite a dramatic squad overhaul.
At the heart of their relationship is a balance of temperament, both hands-on coaches who like constant contact with their players, both from a technical and emotional perspective.
“The good cop, bad cop is a bit of an old cliche [that doesn't apply],” Fowler says.
“We kind of laugh about that and say that the players prefer him. During the week he can be a bit grumpy but on a Saturday you might see me being a wee bit animated on the touchline than he is. He’s quite calm and thoughtful on a Saturday, I mostly do the defensive work during the week so that can make it a lot more stressful on the sidelines for me than with the attacking stuff. You probably need to be a bit more reactive with that [defence].
“I think the days of the bad cop, the shouting and bawling, I think they’re gone. In football it’s about getting the best out of players and you don’t get that through shouting and ranting, it’s about being positive and trying to improve people, their mindset and how hard they work.
“Jack is always pretty calm. I had a few managers in Scotland who were always ranting and raving,” he adds.
“Times have changed. I’ve only seen Jack really annoyed once or twice. He’s very thoughtful and that’s how he deals with people. It can be good for people to know that frustration is in you and that it can come out because people can be receptive to it, but they switch off when you go down that route too often.
“Football is an emotional game, results will go up and down. Sometimes you will lose when you don’t deserve to and win when you don’t as well, so you have to have that consistent message.
“Performance wise, we’ve had that from the players which gives you confidence that the results will come.”
Key to that has been committing to a passing brand of football that has made a strong impression on supporters so far.
“The manager will say to the players, he can take responsbility for the things that might go wrong on the pitch, because he asks them to play that way,” Fowler says.
“But they’ve enjoyed it, from being a player myself, sometimes you’re watching the ball fly over your head, there’s nothing worse, you’re neither here nor there.
“We believe we’ve got good players and we’ll show it. We train to play that way so they know what to expect on a Saturday.”
Fowler’s work on the training pitch mostly encompasses the defensive side of the team and he has been encouraged by much of what he has seen.
Tom Flanagan’s injury was a frustration, the 26-year-old primed to start the campaign having played almost every minute of pre-season.
That left Sunderland dependent on players who needed time to get up to speed both in terms of fitness and tactics, but the improvements are starting to show.
“John [Potter] and I mostly work on the defensive side and the manager gets the boys who want to do shooting which is always the popular one, the boys love that!” Fowler says.
“The defensive coaching can be hard because it’s a decision making thing, you can paint pictures and go through things but in the heat of the battle the defenders need to make the decisions. If they don’t you get punished, and we have seen that up to now.
“We’re improving on that, and we do take feedback from the players, sometimes it’s different on the pitch, you can be a bit frantic and stressed on the touchline. Glenn Loovens is a good one, a calm character, and as he gets fitter he’ll help those around him.”
That is a neat reflection of where this team is at a whole.
Improving slowly but surely, adapting to new surroundings after a dramatic summer.
Ross and Fowler have stuck largely to the template that worked so well St Mirren.
There have been no histrionics and there are unlikely to be even if things get tough. It is an approach that has taken them this far, and hopefully will power Sunderland even further.