Jack Ross recalls the dressing-room inquest at Burton that played a key part in powering Sunderland’s promotion push
It had, broadly speaking, been a very encouraging start to the season.
At the Pirelli Stadium it came to an abrupt halt.
There was something of a revival in the second half, when Chris Maguire roared back to form with a stunning goal, and Aiden McGeady’s first appearance of the season brought Sunderland some much-needed impetus.
But by and large they were abject.
Jack Ross had picked his most attacking XI yet, Jerome Sinclair on the wing and Charlie Wyke partnering Josh Maja up front.
Sunderland were overrun, Burton’s Stephen Quinn dominant in midfield. Nigel Clough’s team thoroughly deserved their 2-1 win.
It felt like a big moment for Ross and his side.
They had not always been superb in league games, indeed two underwhelming home draws against Oxford and Fleetwood preceded this defeat.
But this was the first time they had been comprehensively outplayed and outfought.
After the game it took an eternity for Ross to emerge and conduct his post-match press conference.
A post-match dressing down?
Not so, it transpired. By the time Ross emerged he was measured and frank, taking the blame personally for the defeat.
There was little criticism of his players, with whom he had just held a frank but productive discussion.
Reflecting as the two sides prepare to meet again, the Black Cats boss sees it as in important moment, both in winning the trust of his players and also bringing them together as a group.
“You never want to get beat,” Ross said.
“The truth is I’m not sure I could have ever imagined us only losing two games by this point because it’s a tough league.
“I think it was important for a couple of reasons.
“One, in terms of how I would deal with it publicly the players don’t really know, it’s all fine and well when you’re winning games.
“Then more importantly, it was within the dressing room and within here [training ground] because I always maintained that I’m happy to have discussions and communications, I’m quite open that way, balanced with the fact that I’m the manager.
“A lot of people talk the talk in that respect but don’t walk the walk when it comes to it,” he added. “
“I think the players at that time saw that’s how it was.
“We spoke for a while after the game because we were rubbish that day, we didn’t play well. Burton played well, they deserved to win and I’m not taking anything away from them, but we weren’t at it.
“Being able to speak about it quite frankly and openly without fear of being shut down right away because the manager doesn’t agree with it, it can be nice to have those times early on where players can see you in different circumstances if you like.
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“I remember it well, there were some who spoke up who I expected to and then there others who maytbe I wasn’t sure if they would,” Ross continued.
“So that encouraged me that they were comfortable enough to do it and also cared enough to do it.
“I think you learn from every single game, win or lose, but at that time, looking back it was fairly important because it showed there was consistency about everything we were doing.”
Sunderland went on to thump Rochdale the following weekend, sparking another long unbeaten run that only came to an end with a crucial red card at Porstmouth just before Christmas.
Speaking after that 4-1 win over Keith Hill’s side, Tom Flanagan spoke of how impressed he had been with the way staff and squad had dealt with their woeful showing at the Pirelli.
“We didn’t come away thinking, we’ve been outplayed, we need to change our style,” he said.
“It was a case of, we were beaten by hard work, and that’s not unacceptable.
“We were in the dressing room quite a long time after so by the time Monday came around it had all been aired.
“We had a quiet coach journey back so we all reflected. On Monday we watched some clips, pointed some fingers.
“Today we proved that we don’t like that, we don’t want to let that happen. I think that’s the right way to go about things. Some might disagree, other managers might not do it that way, but I think it’s good.”
The two sides meet again on Tuesday night with Sunderland now perfectly poised in their push for automatic promotion.
Burton, though, will be tricky opponents again.
They are in fine form and were good dvalue for their 3-1 win over Barnsley.
After that game earlier in the season, Ross is prepared for another awkward encounter.
“They’re a difficult team to prepare for playing against because they have changed, Nigel is not afraid to change systems and ways of playing.
“That can sometimes make it unpredictable in terms of what you’re going to face.
“They’ve played a midfield diamond with two strikers of late but they’ve had three home games.
“You have to back to Charlton for their last away game and they played a very different way. So you prepare as much as you can for those scenarios but again, we’re in a good place.
“How we’ve performed over the last couple of months and particularly the last week gives us a lot of encouragement.”
One thing not in quesiton will be Sunderland’s attitude.
They’ve delivered on that front time and time again this season, a spirit underlined by their response to that first taste of defeat in the league.