Angry Jack Ross has told his Sunderland players they must improve if they are to win promotion via the play-offs - and says now is not the time to ‘sugarcoat’ his feelings.
The Black Cats’ League One fate was confirmed following a dramatic late defeat at Fleetwood Town, Ashley Eastham heading home the winner from a corner in the fifth minute of added-on time.
Sunderland had taken the lead in the 29th minute through Lee Cattermole’s header but an awful second half saw their faint automatic promotion hopes vanish, skipper Paddy Madden scoring in the 73rd minute before Fleetwood’s late hammer-blow.
Luton Town and Barnsley won promotion following Sunderland's defeat at Highbury Stadium and Portsmouth’s 3-2 home defeat to Peterborough United.
Sunderland sit fourth after losing their fourth game of the campaign, a season which has also seen 19 draws.
Ross said: “I say publicly a lot of things I tell the players and this is not a time to sugarcoat anything and to make them understand we don’t want to spend another season in this league.
“That isn’t being disrespectful, we know how tough this league is, you can see that from where we finish.
“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.
“We have been positive with the players all season and it is not hanging them out to dry, far from it. I have told them this in the dressing room.
“We have tried to cajole, it has been difficult to navigate this season for various reasons but this is the situation we are in now.
“The brutal reality has to be clear, for us to be where we want as a club - and some of the players have been there - and it is why I came as a manager. I didn’t come to steady the ship. I came here to take the club back to the Championship.
“I am prepared to stand up and be counted, I need them all to do that and I am confident they will, they have shown character.
“They can’t shy away from it, they need to be at their best individually and as a group for the play-off games.”
Ross added: “We can’t keep telling the same story or be protective in the same way, we can't keep creating opportunities and not be more ruthless and capitulate in that manner.
“We should be good enough to win games from winning positions. I am pretty angry at the moment.
“We did enough in parts of the game to win it but we didn’t and then we end up on the end of a scoreline that means you know where you will be, missing out on the top two.
“We started the game in a manner that believed it could still do it but we fell short.”
On the dire second half performance, Ross said: “The reasoning for that could be down to a lot of things, I thought we looked leggy second half, we have had a tough month but we freshened the team up.
“Partly because we had to, partly because we thought it was the right thing to do. There are periods when the game will swing away from you but you still have to be better.
“And we weren’t. We weren’t under huge amounts of pressure,. We didn’t create enough as we did in the early part of the game.
“We haven’t kept enough clean sheets and haven’t won enough games from winning positions, that is why we have fallen short. A good points total but we have fallen short.
“If had done those things we’d have been up there by now.”