How Jack Ross set the tone for his Sunderland tenure this time last year - and what's different now

George Honeyman was reflecting on a quite remarkable season, shortly before it ended in play-off heartbreak against Charlton Athletic.

Thursday, 18th July 2019, 6:38 pm

There is no doubt that those final weeks of the season were testing and trying for all concerned.

What had been an often exhilarating campaign after two years of misery was beginning to fizzle out. The hangover from that Checkatrade Trophy run was severe and with Aiden McGeady battling a broken foot, Sunderland were stumbling on the pitch.

Honeyman, though, was keen to stress what the mood had been like when Sunderland fell to a 1-0 defeat against Darlington in their first pre-season game.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Jack Ross is gearing up for his second season in charge at Sunderland

That game had seen Joel Asoro watch on as a move to Swansea CIty neared, while unknown trialist Anton Forrester led the line.

It is typical (and with good reason historically) for alarm bells to ring when Sunderland are in pre-season and here they ringer as loud as ever before.

Honeyman felt it, but what had happened in the previous week game him confidence and it was interesting to hear him talk before that devastating Charlton Athletic defeat.

Particularly now, as Ross again runs through his preparations for the upcoming campaign in the Algarve.

"There was a meeting in Portugal," Honeyman said.

"The manager got us together on that pre-season trip and did a powerpoint.

"It was the first time he really collected us together as a group and laid out his goals and ambitions.

“The way he spoke and the way his staff spoke was really something that we felt everyone would enjoy being part of, something that finally felt like we could get going in the right way.

“He’s been massive for the club since he came in and no one should underestimate the job that he has done.”

That Portugal trip came at interesting time for Ross.

He had been in post for a few weeks and much to the relief of supporters, transfer business was beginning to develop a bit of momentum.

The arrival of Dylan McGeouch that week felt significant, a proven player with real technical abilty and plenty of suitors.

Ross, though, was quickly adapting.

He has spoken often enough about the ‘ground zero’ affect of double relegation.

In the necessary and understandable upheaval, Sunderland’s footballing structure changed radically and it is something that even now they are still trying to rebuild and revamp.

Most areas of the club had to reset rapidly to adjust to the new reality.

One of the only areas of the club that wasn’t fully able to do so was the playing squad.

It did to some extent, of course. The January acquisition of Will Grigg skewed the perception of Sunderland’s spending power and was perfect fuel for fellow clubs to pile the pressure on and deflect by talking of big budgets and big spending.

The reality was that for the most part, Sunderland were a League One club signing League One players for League One wages.

Many anticipated outgoings did not materialise, though, and left Ross will a challenge very different from the ‘clean slate rebuild’ he and most others had expected.

The knock-on effects on his man-management and tactical tasks were significant.

Now Ross has to ensure he built a positive squad atmosphere despite the radical gaps in pay and stature. He had to find a way to play despite having a squad squad with no discernible and cohesive identity.

For the most part, the squad took on the challenge admirably and thought the football was often functional, it was effective enough.

That bruising end to the campaign raised many questions and Ross will know the pressure that sits on his shoulders.

100-point claims were an understandbly bullish statement of intent at a time when supporters were hurting, but this league has not got any easier and it’s hard to see Sunderland spending big this summer.

Yes, they will still have the biggest wage bill in the league (and Bryan Oviedo will account for much of that) but it is coming down all the time.

It’s hard to envisage the league being as strong this season but the likes of Fleetwood Town and Coventry City are investing and impressively.

It’s a big job for Ross, even as he knows he simply must succeed in the last guaranteed year of his contract.

The business he has done this summer and is still trying to do is telling.

He has spoken of adding more pace and strength to his squad. Jordan Willis is a young player but with experience and high potential, as George Dobson would be. It’s sensible business in a league where fees are rarely spent. Both bring real athleticism and may help Ross build the energetic style he was known for in Scotland. Last year, the profile of his squad and the need to protect an inconsistent defence made that tough.

The departure of more players from the Premier League era will, he will hope, give his side a stronger identity and the squad a better balance.

Some further tweaks are likely but Ross will take some comfort from the fact that in terms of playing style, he will have an element of continuity and a generally younger side.

He will be managing, hopefully, a little more on his own terms.

He will know how high the stakes are this season and there will be a determination to deliver promotion at the second time of asking.

This will be an important time as he sets the tone for the campaign, just as he did last year.

That prolonged takeover talk left him with much to do quickly, but the platform is still far better to build on those signs of promise last year.