James Fowler’s verdict on Sunderland’s season so far, defensive improvements and working with Jack Ross

James Fowler.
James Fowler.
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After a 1-0 win at Doncaster Jack Ross and his backroom staff sat down to analyse the season so far.

They broke the campaign into two seven-game blocks.

Sunderland defended strongly against Port Vale.

Sunderland defended strongly against Port Vale.

In the first there were some good results but some worrying tends too. Too many early goals conceded, too many shipped from set pieces.

In the second block the improvement was stark, and since that night at the Keepmoat they have picked up another two wins and clean sheets in the league.

Ross said it was down to good habits, preparation and repetition.

At Vale Park they conceded one but defended valiantly against a barrage of balls into the box.

That improvement is a source of major satisfaction for James Fowler and John Potter, who are charged with leading defensive coaching and set pieces on the training pitch.

“One of the things we’d identified when we were conceding goals, it was often at the start of games,” Fowler said.

“So we looked at everything, the preparation, the warm-up, how we started, the way we played for the first 10/15 minutes, and I think we’ve got better at that.

“That’s helped us and of course just working with the players day in day out [starts to make a difference].

“Then you get a couple of clean sheets and the confidence just grows. Jon McLaughlin has played his part but we know how good he is and it’s part of his job.

“The balance of midfield can help as well, a combination of lots of things,” he added.

“Set pieces, we’re not the biggest but we’ve done a lot of work and put an onus on the players to take responsbility, who they’re picking up and not to be the one losing their man to concede a goal.

“The players have taken that on board really well.

“Tom and Jack is a new partnership but they’ve complemented each other and they’ve been outstanding.

“That bodes well moving forward, particularly when you’ve got Glenn and Alim to provide competition as well.

“All over the pitch, everyone knows they have to reach a level to stay in the team.”

It helps, too, that Fowler and the backroom staff are gaining a better understanding of League One and its unique challenges.

Sunderland have put themselves in a good position to push for automatic promotion but it has not been plain sailing.

“We’ve found that it’s been really competitive, over the games I don’t think we’ve won any easily,” Fowler said.

“There’s always been spells where the opposition have had opportunities and I think as the season has progressed we’ve dealt with those spells better.

“It’s been important to get the clean sheets as well and I think that just comes with the relationship building between the coaching staff and the players and between the players themselves.

“It’s been tough but we’ve been on a good run.

“Probably the athleticism [has surprised him most],” he added.

“We’ve come up against different teams but most teams are physically bigger and stronger than us.

“Just now we’ve probably got two centre-backs of that size in the team but again, we feel we’re dealing with that side of things and the pace of the game better.

“There’s teams that will play and some that will be direct so it’s just a case of being prepared for that.

“From the beginning of the season we’ve said that promotion is the aim and we’re in and around that just now, so we’re relatively happy with where we are.

“There were a lot of changes happening when we came, the squad is a lot more settled now so that helps.”

Fowler and Ross worked together at St Mirren and his past experience as a manager at Queen of the South helps him provide the necessary support.

Part of that is challenging the Black Cats boss, with Ross previously joking that Fowler will often question him on his more attacking substitutions.

“It’s worked up until now, it worked at St Mirren,” Fowler said.

“Sometimes there’s a question to be asked, a challenge to put to him and he’ll have his thoughts.

“It’s good to have that, I think if you always just agree and go along with what each other says, then you don’t always get the right outcome.

“It helps to have done Jack’s job, albeit at a lesser level.

“I can kind of head things off that he doesn’t have to deal with and help him manage his time better. I know all the emotions that go with it as well.

“I think it’s a good dynamic.

“There’s a lot of different things in terms of the team and selection, players knocking on your door and how you deal with that.

“The manager is really good at that.

“I was 33,34 when I first managed and it’s very different, particularly as it was players I’d played with.

“Jack is really, really good with the way he speaks to players, the media and the fans as well.

“We’re all happy with with our roles.”