Emotional Sunderland training ground scenes showcase huge affection for fiercely loyal Jack Ross as focus now shifts to Stewart Donald's next move
“I’m not commenting on that Richard, it’s a poor question from you.”
Right up until the end of his tenure in charge at Sunderland, Jack Ross was defending his players.
A mark of the man and a mark of the man-management style he adopted during his 18-month spell on Wearside, one which ultimately ended in Ross being sacked with Sunderland sixth.
With just 11 games gone, Sunderland already eight points adrift of league leaders Ipswich Town with points dropped in six of their opening games.
Fan frustration and anger over the number of draws, style of play, slow build-up play and questions over Ross’ ability to secure promotion at the second attempt had reached a tipping point.
Stewart Donald’s opinion is ultimately the only one that matters and he too had seemingly reached the same conclusion, with concerns over whether Ross would win promotion.
The question, in case you were wondering, was on the back of the opening goal conceded at Lincoln City by Jon McLaughlin.
Having confirmed he didn’t think it was a foul, I’d asked whether he was disappointed with McLaughlin’s performance - on the back of some questionable goals conceded this term.
Ross clearly was not in the mood and batted away the question.
The post-match huddle, conducted on the edge of the pitch in front of the home dugout at Sincil Bank, was already tense and it was set to be short, with Ross clearly feeling the pressure and angered by the display of his side.
This, it must be stressed, was not usual of a post-match press conference with Ross.
In my experience he never shirked a question, was always up front and as honest as he could be while always protecting his players.
His answers always carefully thought through, a deep-thinker, there was never a cliche casually chucked about when Ross spoke.
The Scot never threw them under the bus. Trust was key for Ross. A good man. The players knew he always had their back publicly.
No doubt he told them exactly what he thought of their display at Sincil Bank in the privacy of the dressing room but publicly he took responsibility.
In the end it helped towards his downfall.
The pressure on Ross has been slowly intensifying for weeks, the novelty and honeymoon period of last season firmly worn off.
Results - and more importantly wins - the only thing that matters this season. And with points dropped in six of the games played so far, the pressure was on.
That pressure will only intensify as the season wears on with a third season in the third tier unthinkable for supporters.
Reflecting on the decision to sack Ross, Donald said: “Jack has left the football club because I’ve made the judgement call that promotion this season has the best chance this season, potentially, with someone else.”
The pressure is now on Donald. Pressure to get the next appointment right. With takeover and investment talk rumbling on, there are many plates to spin.
Get this decision wrong and Sunderland could be set for an extended spell in the third tier and that would prove disastrous.
For Ross, there was an outpouring of emotion at the Academy of Light on Tuesday when it was confirmed he’d been sacked - having taken training, he was sacked just hours before the Grimsby clash. The timing of the decision did not sit well.
Yet the decision had been made and Sunderland have to quickly look to the next manager tasked with bringing success back.
How highly Ross - who was back at the training ground on Wednesday to say his proper goodbyes to the staff he had worked so closely with at all levels since May last year - was thought of as a man was illustrated by his former assistant James Fowler.
Tears were shed by staff. It was highlighted how Ross was quick to send a congratulatory text after the Grimsby win.
Again a mark of the man.
He will have learned so much from his time on Wearside, it will make him a better manager in the long run.
And there will already be clubs keen to employ him despite how it ended on Wearside.
Fowler said: “It is emotional, I am really gutted for him. I have worked closely with him for three years, I have seen how much he has turned the club around, from day one, the things he has had to deal with in terms of players in and out.
“He has also tried to change the culture, the biggest thing for me is the staff around the academy and the relationship he has built.
“Not just football staff, non-football staff too, there have been tears shed today. Credit to him how he brought everyone back together again.”
There was a sombre mood among the Sunderland staff at the Stadium of Light for the EFL Trophy win over Grimsby.
The game very much a sideshow to the dramatic events that had preceded it. In the end it was testament to the job Ross had done that the players produced such a professional performance.
Fowler, in an emotional post-match press conference, dedicated the win to Ross.
It was a bold move by Donald to appoint Ross in the first place and there was a huge will for him to succeed.
Ultimately it didn’t work out as planned and such is the pressure on winning promotion this season that a decision had to be made with Sunderland now once again on the hunt for a new manager - with all eyes on Donald and his next move.
Now the pressure is really on.