Bruised Sunderland must wake from their slumber as Jack Ross prepares for biggest week of his managerial career

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Win, lose or draw Jack Ross’ demeanour post-match this season when dealing with the press has always been very much the same; cool, calm, collected.

Never too high after a win, never too low after a draw or a rare defeat.

Sunderland AFC manager Jack Ross.

Sunderland AFC manager Jack Ross.

Stood next to the dugouts at Fleetwood Town’s Highbury stadium last Tuesday evening, around 15 minutes after the club’s automatic promotion hopes had finally been extinguished, Ross cut a very different figure.

Openly critical of his players in a manner he hadn’t previously been.

It was a change of tone, the Scot fully aware that his side were stumbling over the line and into the play-offs without any momentum whatsoever.

After the late defeat to Fleetwood, Ross said: “Every single player should have ambitions to play in at least one higher league. I’m the same as a manager. The reality is they need to do certain things better.

“It is a time for not shying away from that. It might be that you find about the ones prepared to stand up.

“It will take big character over the next few games.”

In simple terms, Ross wanted to see a big reaction in the season finale at Southend United’s tired Roots Hall ground.

Yet what he got was a limp, lifeless, tired display devoid of any energy, character or creativity.

Sunderland rallied midway through the second half, subs Luke O’Nien and Kaz Sterling adding some fresh legs but overall the Black Cats were way off the pace. Way off.

Yes, changes had been made with key players missing through either injury or having been rested ahead of the play-offs.

But Ross knew that was no excuse for the performance he’d just witnessed, the travelling Sunderland support let down badly for the second successive match.

Ross wanted a reaction. He didn’t get one. And that is a major concern heading into the two-legged play-off semi-final against Portsmouth, the home leg taking place at the Stadium of Light this Saturday evening.

Ross cut a frustrated figure in the corridor outside the dressing rooms at Roots Hall, the celebrations of the home players taking place around him, the Shrimpers having secured their League One status with the 2-1 win.

They were hungrier than Sunderland. And that is not acceptable. The likes of Will Grigg and Lynden Gooch, both handed a chance this week to secure a place in the side, failed to take it.

Both way off the pace. They weren’t the only ones.

The free week leading up to this weekend will give the Sunderland squad the chance to reflect, refresh and get themselves ready for one final push. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Ross is facing his biggest week in management, the burden of lifting the players at the Academy of Light falls on his shoulders, with many big selection calls to make.

Revert back to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and ditch the 4-4-2? Drop Will Grigg and Lynden Gooch? Will Aiden McGeady, Lee Cattermole, George Honeyman and Lewis Morgan be fit to play?

Who to play in central defence? Keep faith with Tom Flanagan and Alim Ozturk or change it again following another soft late goal conceded.

Goalkeeper aside, there are issues to be resolved all over the pitch for Ross and his coaching staff this week.

Sunderland have had a bruising few weeks, winning just one in seven and picking up just six points from 21.

The energy and vigour from performances earlier in the season has gone. Sunderland look tired.

Yet, in fairness, the Black Cats have shown time and time again this season that this squad does have character.

They need to prove it again this weekend. Ross wants to see a reaction. Wearside awaits with baited breath.

One thing is for sure, it won’t be dull.