Jack Ross explains his key message to Sunderland squad this week and why they can finally beat Portsmouth
That defeat at Southend United was a painful way to to end the season.
Sunderland outplayed, outfought.
If this week has not felt like a typical play-off build up, then that meek performance is probably to blame.
The disappointment has been tough to shift but for Jack Ross the pause has provided a most welcome opportunity to regroup and refresh.
It has been a punishing season from the start but April was particularly brutal, the agony of Wembley followed by nine crunch games in just five weeks.
This pause before the storm has allowed him to get his squad almost back to full fitness, and also to reinforce and remind, that this is a good team who have played well for much of the season.
The key is drawing on that while rediscovering the endeavor and tenacity that was so badly lacking at Roots Hall.
“You can do it in different ways,” Ross said.
“On the training pitch in the work you can do, from an analysis point of view with the group but also individually, we’ve used this week to remind them that they’re good players and a good team.
“There’s a lot of different approaches to it and we’ve had time to do it this week.
“It was a reminder of that we’re good at, what we do well.
“But there’s a fundamental part that has to underpin all of that and that’s to do with your willingness to work hard, to be competitive,” he added.
“I’ve very rarely been critical of the players this season, they’ve maybe not played well all of the time but that’s always been there.
“Southend was one of the very few occasions this week where we dipped below those standards.
“On the back of that I think the players have refocused, it was a reminder but I think that also it was about making sure that didn’t envelop them, because it had been 40-odd games before that they did a lot of good things in.”
There have been times this season when it has been clear that Sunderland remain a team in transition.
When they have been good, they have been very good. Controlling midfield, recycling possession, getting the ball to their wingers in dangerous positions.
Their position in the table reflects an inability to do that consistently enough, but Ross knows the team in that groove can hurt anybody.
The trick is reproducing it over 90 minutes, across these three games that offer an opportunity to banish any disappointment at missing out on the top two.
“I think we’ve shown a greater continuity recently,” he said.
“That’s why the last part of the season was a little bit strange because I felt that we’d put a level of performance together consistently in a way we maybe hadn’t done earlier in the season but the results didn’t reflect that.
“I do think we’re as good as any team in the league if not the best at working the ball into wide areas and switching the play.
“There’s other bits that we need to improve on but when we do that I think we’re a good team, we’ve shown that at times this season.”
To that end, the return of Aiden McGeady and Lewis Morgan could be key.
“You always try to play with a degree of flexibility,” Ross said.
“So last Saturday we don’t have either of those players so we go with two strikers, we try and play not in a completely different way but slightly differently, we didn’t do that.
“When we have Aiden and Lewis we have that real natural width and I think that’s when we’re at our best, that’s when we cause teams problems.”
Portsmouth perhaps represent the contradiction at the heart of Sunderland’s season better than anybody.
They are a team that have made the Black Cats suffer, pushed them back, particularly in that second half at Wembley.
But they are also a side who have for long spells struggled to contain Sunderland and been made to look one dimensional, in the first half at Wembley and for much of the recent encounter at the Stadium of Light.
They are a strong side but Ross insists it is all to play for.
“I probably look at games slightly differently,” he said.
“I look at the season and we may have recorded positive results against a team, but I’ll know if we’ve not played well or struggled to play against them.
“That probably causes me more concerns, even if people say it’s the end result that always matters.
“I think the fact that the games against Portsmouth this season, we’ve played well for parts each one, they have as well but the games have been competitive and close,” he added.
“We’ve been right in them, and that makes me OK.
“There are teams this season that we’ve found it difficult to play against for different reasons and that would be more concerning.
“But certainly I think the way they play can cause problems at times, but the way we play can cause them difficulty. “