Phil Smith's verdict: The midfield performance that epitomised the best of what Jack Ross has brought to Sunderland

It's worth reflecting on some comments made by Jack Ross, shortly before Sunderland's extended break a couple of weeks back.

Thursday, 4th April 2019, 12:05 pm
Updated Thursday, 4th April 2019, 12:14 pm
Dylan McGeouch was one of a number of players to come back into the Sunderland side and shine

Ross spoke about a bounce game he was organising, to give his fringe players a chance to keep their match fitness up.

"Players like Dylan [McGeouch] and Alim [Ozturk], their attitude and application in terms of how they’ve trained has been brilliant,” Ross said.

Dylan McGeouch was one of a number of players to come back into the Sunderland side and shine

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“I take a lot of pride in that.

“It doesn’t guarantee you winning games and it doesn’t guarantee success but the culture here is good now, it’s a good group.

“If someone was to take this group from me tomorrow then they’d say, this group does things right,” he added.

"Players like Dylan deserve a huge amount of credit and I hope they get the opportunity because my opinion of him as a player has not changed.

“It’s just that Grant [Leadbitter] has come and his form has been good.”

It echoed his comments earlier in the season, when he has asked to give his verdict ten games into the league campaign.

"On the pitch, I think we’ve still got a lot where we can better," he said.

“Off the pitch, the training ground environment, I’m really pleased.

“I know the on the pitch one is the one that always matters, the one I’ll be judged on. But the other one gives you the platform and you can never underestimate the importance of it.

“What we’ve build it in the changing room is really good, it’s just producing it time and time again on the pitch."

At the Wham Stadium we saw, not for the first time it must be said, that this was not merely a platitude.

There was inevitably an intake of breath when Ross named his XI; five changes from the side that lost at Wembley on Sunday.

It was a call he had to make given the mental and physical challenges of that game, but such upheaval always comes with a risk.

Those that came in did him proud and no one typified that more than McGeouch.

His last league start had come against Luton Town in January, a game in which he had done little wrong. But the arrival of the excellent Grant Leadbitter pushed him to the fringes and it has been a long, frustrating wait for another opportunity.

This showing underlined Ross' assertion that in the meantime he had trained superbly, stuck at it and got himself in the best shape possible.

On the ball he was adventurous, playing some wonderful forward passes, the kind of which had all so excited in pre-season, but it was off the ball that he really made his mark. Ross had gambled on a 4-4-2 shape but only for the briefest moments did they look overrun.

McGeouch snapped into challenges, read the game well, made interceptions and won countless headers.

Like Charlie Wyke, Denver Hume and Max Power, he was part of an impressively energetic and determined display.

It was a treat to watch, a vindication of Ross' man-management skills and also the professionalism of the players brought to the club this season.

Of course, this wasn't just about endeavour.

Sunderland played some of the best football we have seen from them this season, in no small part because of the way Charlie Wyke knitted play together and brought the best out of the attacking players around him.

Hume was a menace again as he drove into dangerous areas and Power moved the ball crisply and precisely.

It was a heartening night that puts the Black Cats in a superb position as they chase the second automatic promotion slot.

They have a great chance of landing it, particularly as Ross will feel his fringe players have underlined his range of options and given him different ways of setting up the team.

They might not get there, and if that's the case there will be questions fairly asked about what was missing and why they fell short.

No one, though, will be able to say that it was about attitude or application.

One of Ross' biggest achievements has been the utter professionalism he has brought to the Academy of Light.

It's never been more obvious that watching McGeouch bottle up his frustration and take it out in a matchwinning display on what was supposed to be a challenging night.

It won't be a three-month wait for his next league start.