Jack Ross reflects on Luton Town and Barnsley's promotion and where Sunderland have fallen short ahead of crucial play-off campaign
It has been a fascinating, exhausting push for the top two in League One.
An anomaly, given the way that five sides have so comprehensively distanced themselves from the rest and all, at one stage at least, having looked like favourites to go up automatically.
Sunderland have never been far off but ultimately fell short.
Luton Town and Barnsley sealed their promotion status on Tuesday night and no one on Wearside would say they did not deserve it.
For the Black Cats the chance for promotion remains but they will have to go through the lottery of the play-offs.
On the pitch, there are obvious shortcoming to address but it is also fair to say that off it, there is much to consider too.
Sunderland have obvious advantages in their facilities and attendances but they remain a club rebuilding and reasserting itself.
So when Ross considers why his side have not been able to get over the line, that is one factor to take into account.
“I do reflect a lot but the bigger reflection will come at the end of the season when you assess everything you did,” Ross said.
“Probably at this time it’s not appropriate to look publicly at what you might have done differently.
“With regards to the team, I think, very obviously, the longer a team is together, the greater continuity there is in terms of the squad and how everything is going to work. That helps.
“It’s not an excuse for us not to finish in the top two but the truth is both of those squads had more continuity about them.
“And also, both those teams have an element of a model behind them,” he added.
“Barnsley’s is probably the easiest one to identify with because they have a kind of age range in what they sign, a model in terms of when they turnover players at a certain stage of their contracts.
“They use a lot stats in how they recruit etc.They have a clear model.
“I think Luton have a kind of structure in everything they do.
“Those are commonalities within a group that help you build something over a period of time.
“I think they’ve had good consistency in their clubs over a period of times.
“I know both clubs can point to managerial changes but there’ve been aspects that have been quite consistent.”
On the field, Sunderland have just not been ruthless enough.
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Their goal tally compares favourably to the sides near the top, but they have kept nowhere near as many clean sheets.
It is also true that of late, poor finishing means then have not turned their better performances into results.
That lack of clinical edge is the clearest reason why they’ve been unable to take advantage of the promising platform they built for themselves at the beginning of April.
“I was irritated post-match on Tuesday, because I think I’ve been fairly honest in my assessments of performances, I will be protective of my players but there were times earlier in the season where we didn’t play well and dug out results one way or another,” Ross said.
“Coming into this stage of the season, even if you take post Coventry, you go into the last five games knowing you probably need to win them all.
“If you had just shown me how we performed in the games, the chances we created in comparison to the opposition, I’d have taken that.
“And yet we’ve only won of them.
“That is the fine margins for us and we’ve just fallen short this season.”
Josh Maja’s absence looms large in that sense.
Ross was clear on Tuesday night in pointing out that while Will Grigg is still managing a troublesome ankle, his return needs to improve.
All over pitch, good chances have been missed at key times.
In defence, it is a frustrating irony that Jon McLaughlin is far less active than earlier in the campaign, but the quality of chances conceded mean clean sheets remain elusive.
If Sunderland are to get over the line, that will have to the corrected in the end of season lottery.
“Earlier in the season we were quite ruthless with the chances we created,” Ross said.
“In fact, there were times where statistically we were getting some stick about whether we could sustain our challenge at the top because our conversion rate was so high from what we were creating.
“Ironically, in the latter part, from a stats point of view we’ve looked a lot healthier in how often we’ve been in the final third and the box, and what we’ve created. We haven’t taken those opportunities.
“It’s very easy to put it down to misfortune or good goalkeeping, there is an element of that. But there’s an element of us needing to be more ruthless, we can’t continue to keep passing up those opportunities.
“Especially going into the play-offs, because the significance of taking them will be huge.”