Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's dramatic afternoon and where the club goes from here

There were suggestions that after the Lincoln City defeat, Jack Ross had seemed downbeat, almost defeated.

Tuesday, 8th October 2019, 5:53 pm

Perhaps.

In truth, it felt different mainly because there was an absolute clarity that has so often not been the case when assessng his side.

The strange dynamics of his Sunderland tenure were summed up in two tweets by OptaJoe, posted shortly after confirmation of his departure.

Jack Ross has left Sunderland after 75 games in charge

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Since Ross took charge, only two teams have lost fewer games than Sunderland. They are Liverpool and Manchester City.

He leaves with the third best win ratio of any Sunderland manager in history.

At the same time, only Nathan Jones and Garry Monk have overseen more draws in that time and Sunderland are playing a second consecutive season in the third division for the first time in their history.

This was Sunderland in the last year or so, and particularly since the turn of the year when the exceptional finishing of Josh Maja, a genius inside the box and a difference maker at this level, departed for Bordeaux.

A club in equal parts reborn and frustrated.

So Ross, post match, was often defensive.

He felt he was in charge of a good side, a resilient one rarely beaten. One that, aside from one or two notable exceptions, were by and large League One players operating in an environment where outsiders and neutrals expected them to dominate. Other sides relished the chance to claim a scalp but by and large his players stood up to the challenge.

This time, though, there could be no complaints.

His side were, he said, nowhere near good enough, either in possession or out of it.

Most tellingly, he said it was ‘so far away from what I’ve produced in my management career’.

For Stewart Donald, a tipping point had been clearly reached.

It has been a campaign in which frustration has never been far away from bubbling to the surface.

Two 1-1 draws set the tone and the dam burst 66 minutes into the game with Bolton Wanderers.

Sunderland were trailing, and Ross threw on Charlie Wyke. Chris Maguire, rather than Will Grigg, was replaced.

The reaction was visceral.

At the heart of it was a sense that the club had ultimately not learned the lessons of their near miss the season before.

That the necessary improvements had not been made and that as such, a repeat result was to be expected. Fundamentally, Sunderland looked like a side capable of mounting a push towards the top of the league but not one that you could confidently say was about to take the next and most important step.

Clearly, that opinion was shared in the boardroom.

The journey from the day he took charge to this day was an exhausting one, in which the club went through a bruising and necessary transition at breakneck speed. More happened at this club in sixteen months than many others will see in ten years.

On day one, he inherited a League One club with a wage bill of around £40 million.

Yet the absurdity of the situation then was that as he set off for his first pre-season training camp, a priceless opportunity to begin a new era and a new direction, a threadbare group had to be padded out with U23 players.

The wage bill now is a fraction of that.

The striker search in that first summer proved challenging. Some players didn’t even bother coming back. Those that did had to be reintegrated after two seasons of shocking failure.

Ross found a system, a method, and the club started well.

Even in the recent, more fractured times, there have been superb wins over Burnley and Sheffield United. Exceptional performances of energy, resilience and tactical nous. Ross showed his aptitude in a gameplan that so superbly shut down Portsmouth in the play-off semi final, a very different one that blew away Barnsley last November and a system in the early days that made use of a lopsided squad still so far from being complete and delivered results.

In recent times that identity was harder to discern, Sunderland’s strikers badly struggling to find the net and he side too often lacking fluidity and conviction as a result.

From day one to the last, his absolute dedication to his work, his professionalism behind the scenes and his commitment to continual improvement impressed all, including Donald. It’s this that led the Chairman to personally comment on his departure, saying he made the call with a ‘heavy heart’, thanking him for ‘working extremely hard and helping us achieve stability’.

His biggest legacy will unquestionably the shift in culture around the club and the Academy of Light.

Charlie Methven so memorably stated that the ‘p*ss-taking party is over’ and in Ross he had the right man.

The hangover from Maja’s departure and the two near-misses at Wembley proved longer and deeper than anyone could have imagined.

Those two games were a microcosm of what has been an exhausting, at times exhilarating and too often frustrating period.

Sunderland were in good positions but couldn’t get over the line. They took over London in a remarkable show of pride and unity, only to leave frustrated and hurt yet again.

The return for the play-off final and the last-gasp goal that followed was just cruel.

Confidence ran out that it would not be repeated.

Ross cut an increasingly frustrated figure and it is perhaps here that the most interesting questions are to be posed.

The Black Cats boss was left in limbo for much of the summer as takeover talks were held with Mark Campbell.

John Park was a visitor at the Academy of Light, preparing to take charge as a Director of Football who would implement a drastically new recruitment strategy.

It didn’t happen, and Ross had to move quick to try and improve his squad.

He prioritised pace and athleticism, spending only one fee, relying otherwise on loans or free agents.

Some key figures left, though Ross in truth was comfortable with this next stage of transition, happy that the squad would have a greater ‘equilibrium’ in terms of finance and profile.

Still, though, he battled the perception from outside around his budget. The biggest, maybe, but the context offered a radically different perspective.

As the latest round of takeover talks began, he was in limbo, isolated, and increasingly under fire.

It has recently been bruising and something that he will no doubt learn much from.

The takeover is without doubt the biggest question hanging over Sunderland and in a chaotic afternoon, the news of Ross’ departure was preceded by reports that MSD Partners have pulled out of the deal.

That has been heavily played down since.

Stewart Donald told fans on twitter that he remained ‘very hopeful’ and that there would be clarity at the end of the week.

Positive talks are understood to have still been ongoing as recently as Monday afternoon.

Either way, the resolution of those talks, successful or otherwise, will be what defines this next era at Sunderland.

The current list of bookmakers’ favourites is a strikingly disparate list.

Daniel Stendel, the former Barnsley boss, famed for his high-pressing, intense game.

Roy Keane, an inspirational figure in these parts but who has not managed since 2011.

Phil Parkinson and Neil Harris, who have succeeded at Football League level but with a far more direct style.

What suits Sunderland and this current squad best? Who fits the model of recruitment?

The answer is not easy to establish because for all the successes of the last 18 months, and the still remarkable attendances are testament to that, this is a club still searching for the route it will take to get back to the Premier League.

If the takeover happens, and even if it does not, the identity of the new manager can only be one part of a greater discussion about how Sunderland plans to be successful and sustainable over a long period.

Ross never felt there was an answer to that in his time.

The chaotic search for Maja’s replacement in January drew a rare public urging from the manager for greater ‘structure’ at the club. It was oft-repeated in the following months as talks with various investors continued.

Whoever talks charge, what we will see tested in the next few months is the fundamental question on which Ross has ultimately been judged: Just how good is this squad?

It has experience and pedigree, but at times has looked short of variety and above all else, the physicality needed to thrive at this level.

The belief that it should be doing better is what has led to this swift call.

It will now be tested as the club weighs up its next step, one of the most significant in its history and certainly the most significant in the tenure of the current owners.

The manager is just one part of that.