Sunderland are searching for their 11th manager in 10 years after they took the decision to sack Jack Ross after 17 months in charge of the Black Cats. But what do they need now?
Ross was dismissed on Tuesday, with Sunderland sixth in Sky Bet League One after 11 games, and the club are now once again looking for a new direction.
The feeling of uncertainty is a familiar one for Sunderland fans. The club has been on a downward trajectory since their relegation from the Premier League in 2017. However, since their descent into League One, they have managed to turn the tide, with owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven bringing an air of positivity back to the club, and securing their financial future.
The appointment of Ross in May 2018, in theory, was everything Sunderland needed at the time. A young, talented and ambitious manager, who was eloquent and knowledgeable about the club.
Ross’ time began rather tumultuously, with a threadbare squad and several players stuck on huge Premier League wages and lengthy contracts.
However, the 43-year-old overcame this adversity and built a solid and competitive team that, on paper, should have been easily capable of automatic promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking.
The Black Cats started the campaign well, but after top scorer Josh Maja signed for Bordeaux, their form dipped. They reached the EFL Trophy final but were beaten on penalties by Portsmouth. The season ended in dramatic fashion, as Ross’ men succumbed to a last-minute Charlton goal in the play-off final, which condemned them to another season in the third tier.
Last season’s failed promotion attempt was seen as a major failure by many Sunderland fans, but the ‘Mackem’ faithful seemed supportive of Donald’s decision to stick with Ross for another campaign, although with the caveat of promotion being a minimum requirement.
In the summer, the club lost some key and influential figures in the dressing room. Captain George Honeyman and longest-serving player Lee Cattermole both went onto pastures new, as well as experienced full-backs Bryan Oviedo, Reece James and Adam Matthews.
Cost-effective League One replacements such as George Dobson, Conor McLaughlin and Jordan Willis were brought in, in an attempt to build a more robust and balanced side to compete in the third tier.
However, the season did not get off to the best of starts, with Ross and his players seemingly suffering from a play-off hangover.
The last straw for the supporters was their recent 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers. This was the first time there seemed to be a collective acrimony from the away end towards the manager.
Anger soon turned to apathy after last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat away to Lincoln City, with many of the away support leaving the ground after the Imps’ second.
Sunderland fan podcast ‘Wise Men Say’ posted a Ross ‘in-or-out’ poll on Twitter after the game – the results of which were an overwhelming 86 per cent against the Scot.
Donald, who has done his best over the past 18 months to reconnect with the fan-base, seemingly listened to the cries for change and brought Ross’ reign to an end.
“I think Jack Ross did OK as manager, but I just feel like he was a little bit too relaxed in his mannerisms,” said former Sunderland striker Stephen Elliot.
“At times it looked like the team needed that little bit extra in games to get wins. Games used to just fizzle out.
“I think he overloaded his squad and because of that he struggled to find a settled starting 11.”
One of Ross’ trademarks in his Sunderland tenure, was the glut of 1-1 draws and failure to kill off games when his side were in control. But he did have a good record on paper, only losing one game at the Stadium of Light and achieving the third-highest win percentage of any manager in Sunderland’s history.
Elliot, however, believes Donald’s decision to sack him was the right one.
“I think it was the right time to part ways with Jack, as I think if he had of stayed it would have been another failed promotion bid. I do think Jack will have learned a lot during his time as manager, and will hopefully go on and be a success elsewhere as he seems to be a really good guy.”
Gareth Ainsworth and Paul Cook are on Sunderland’s shortlist to replace Ross as manager, the latter of which Elliot thinks would be an ‘ideal candidate’.
“I think Sunderland need a manager that has experience in getting promotions and managing clubs with high demand from supporters,” said Elliot.
“Mick McCarthy or Roy Keane would be ideal for me as they know the club, however, if they were to appoint someone in current league management, I think Paul Cook would be an ideal candidate.
“He did some great work at Pompey, where there was huge pressure from fans, and then at Wigan for the last few seasons.”
Unlike during previous regimes, the next Sunderland manager will be coming into a club that is relatively stable, with a competitive squad and in a good position in the table. This doesn’t deter from the fact that this appointment is crucial for the club, and it’s one they can’t get wrong.
“The club needs to make sure this appointment is the correct one,” said Elliot.
“The club needs to be in the top two divisions minimum, as its supporters deserve so much more than what they have received in the past three or four seasons.
“A hero is needed and the next guy appointed has to be that hero, as languishing in the third tier for much longer would be a disaster for such a huge club.”
Sunderland’s next game comes away at Ainsworth’s Wycombe on October 19, following the international break.