When Jack Ross and his coaching team arrived on Wearside last summer, Sunderland AFC found itself at a crossroads.
The club had just been relegated to League One with a poor, highly-paid squad, many of who didn’t want to be at the club, a squad that needed to be overhauled.
Sunderland’s new owners took a gamble in appointing Ross, given the size of the task ahead of him and that he’d never managed in England before.
Yet the impressive Scot has steered the club through a major rebuild, with 22 players departing and 18 coming in, and helped turn the fortunes of the club around, leading Sunderland to a Wembley cup final and with six games to go, in a strong position to win automatic promotion back to the Championship.
Many outsiders will look at the size of Sunderland’s overall budget, the biggest ever in League One, and say the Black Cats are exactly where they should be. Fleetwood Town boss Joey Barton made reference to the size of the budget just last week.
And that is true to an extent but it does rather overshadow the scale of the challenge facing Ross & Co when they took charge last summer, and the difficulties they have overcome.
His assistant James Fowler believes Ross doesn’t always get the credit he deserves but is confident his cool, calm, collected boss will lead Sunderland to promotion this spring.
Speaking ahead of the visit of Coventry City to the Stadium of Light, Fowler said: “I don’t know if he gets the credit he deserves, whether you get the credit at the end of the season.
“He has found himself at a massive club and is enjoying that challenge.
“Yes people can talk about budgets, but it is about how you manage that budget. We came in with the new ownership last summer and had to deal with the huge turnaround in players, some didn’t necessarily want to be here and then left.
“The manager came in as an unknown from Scotland but he has proven himself on the training ground with the players, his engagement with the press, the fans has been really impressive.
“I don’t know if he will ever get the credit he deserves just for the turnaround of where the club found itself in and the pressure of what it had to deal with last summer.
“He is at a big club and of course you deal with the pressure.
“There is an expectation from fans and from outside that it should be automatic promotion, every game we have had has been the biggest game of the season for the opposition.”
Sunderland’s wage bill is comfortably the biggest in the league, helped by a small number of high-earners that are still at the club from the Premier League days, though they did take a 40 per cent cut following relegation from the top flight, the likes of Lee Cattermole, Bryan Oviedo and Adam Matthews.
Sunderland executive director Charlie Methven explained: “The reality is that we have the biggest budget that League One has ever seen, of which, 60 per cent is spent on four players who are on old Premier League contracts.
“Now in a squad of 28, if you have four players who add up to more than the entire of the rest of the squad that it is not an optimal situation to be in, it is totally false perspective to compare the budget in that way.
“The effective budget is a little higher than the other top three or four teams but not a magnitude higher, that is the reality of the situation, it is a little bit higher.
“Those other teams, Luton, Portsmouth and Barnsley have established squads that have grown together, we knew that coming into this season,
“Squads that over three of four years have dropped out the bits that don’t work and put in the bits that do. This season we have had 22 players leave the club and 18 come in.”
Fowler sees first hand how Ross - first in on a morning at the Academy of Light and last out at night - manages the squad on a day-to-day basis, especially given the massive variation in wages.
Fowler added: “The manager has done a great job in uniting the group.
“There has been no issues from within. Everyone wants to achieve the same thing.
“He is first in and last out and demanding of his staff too, the staff are not far behind him either way as well - he leads by example.
“He showed that and how hard he has worked, in his previous jobs too, totally committed and trying to do the best for the club he is at.
“He is hands on with the coaching and on field stuff too, it is trying to find a balance so he can focus on what he needs to focus on.
“The staff help him, like today, a change of voice for him, he has done so many press conferences, it allows him to have some freedom this afternoon and look ahead to the weekend.”
The pair worked together at St Mirren, guiding the club to the Scottish Championship title last season before moving to Wearside.
That experience can only help second-place Sunderland as they look to cement their place in the top two with six games to go, starting with Coventry City at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Fowler added: “From day one the aim has been promotion, there has been challenges along the way, that always happens.
“We have found ourselves in a decent position, six games to go with three at home.
“At St Mirren we found ourselves at the bottom end of the table and dealing with that and what it meant with the fans, then staying up and that feeling and then winning the league.
“Getting over that final line, you need that calmness and clarity of thought.
“The manager spoke about the two points per game being the target, we are bang on that right now, other teams have been around that.
“The calmness is through the week, the preparation he does, the belief he has in the players, the emotion kicks in during the match.
“In terms of preparation and analysis he will always back himself that he is doing as much as anyone, if not more. He then puts full trust in the players when they step over that line.
“The manager is quite calm on the touchline, he has that clarity of thought. I’m dealing with set plays at both ends and defensive stuff, it is always a bit more hairy for me!
“The manager always has that trust in the players and what he does and the results have shown that, that won’t change.
“It is important we support the players as much as they need it.
“They have shown they can handle the pressure of being at this great club and that won’t change.”