I’M READY FOR MY CLOSE-UP
Pressures at Hibs are no problem to Ross after living life under the lens at Sunderland
WHEN Jack Ross agreed to take the reins at Sunderland in May of last year, the plan was to make the English giants box office again. It can safely be said that being cast as the central character in a soon-to-be screened box set was never really in his thinking.
By the time the ink was dry on his contract at the Stadium of Light, though, the former St Mirren manager knew that resistance would be futile. Like it or not, at the behest of the club’s owners, pretty much his every waking hour would be fair game for the producers of the second instalment of Sunderland Til I
Die — the second series of which will be available on Netflix in the New Year.
Given that the season ended about as grimly as your average Scandi-noir drama for the Wearside club, Ross can be forgiven for not counting the minutes until its release.
But if he hasn’t exactly grown to love the whole idea, he has at least come to terms with it.
The fact remains that a sneak preview of what has yet to hit the nation’s tablets did not necessitate him taking refuge behind the sofa and watching through the cracks in his fingers.
In every sense, the now Hibernian head coach has lived to tell the story.
‘I’ve managed to see some of the episodes of the next series,’ Ross explained. ‘When you make these documentaries, there is probably a narrative before it is even produced.
‘It’s very well done. Just like the first series, it’s very well produced. It’s probably less enjoyable when you are in it than when you are just watching.
‘That’s a different experience — that of having a camera crew omnipresent and everything that goes with that. That’s done now and I’ve probably become less paranoid about that. If people judge me from how I appear on a TV programme rather than how I am first-hand, then so be it.
‘I’m sure everyone would be the same. A lot of people don’t like watching themselves back or listening to themselves. Well, if you extend that further and be part of something which is edited and put together, you can be unsure about what the storyline will be and how you will come across.
‘You can watch it and pick out little things, saying: “Am I happy with that?”. But, truth be told, you make peace with it. I’m sure people will enjoy watching it but it’s not something I’d love to be part of again. It didn’t give me a thirst for reality television, that’s for sure!’
Sensing their new manager’s reservations about the project last summer, the Sunderland board sought to allay his fears by showing him a clip from the first series. It’s fair to say their sales pitch left something to be desired.
‘When I first took the job, it wasn’t a certainty that there would be a second series,’ Ross recalled.
‘I said: “No”, the board said: “Yes”. So the board won. To try to convince me to help them with it, they showed me little bits of the first series.
‘And, for some reason, they decided to show me the clip where Chris (Coleman) comes out of the stadium after being relegated (and being confronted by an irate fan). I’ve no idea why they showed me that. The problem is: I had started the job already. If they had showed me that before I got it, I don’t know if I would have taken it.’
Realising he would be wasting his breath protesting against the filming in general, the Scot sought to at least draw some boundaries.
‘There was a continual desire for dressing-room access or tactical meeting access,’ he explained.
‘That’s why I was always firm in my stance that they wouldn’t get it. Not because I thought I would change, but the perception from the players might. The message gets diluted. If there’s a camera crew present then maybe the players wonder if you believe what you are saying or whether it’s for effect.
‘I was very consistent in the access I allowed, and keeping the nuts and bolts of my work private.’
Doubtless, the series will not be without its moments but Ross’ time on Wearside was no unmitigated disaster.
If the bottom line is that he failed to get the club promoted back to the Championship, he did reach the play-off final with a win record that most Sunderland managers in the past 15 years could not match.
Despite the way things ended, he feels that everything he encountered there — whether captured by cameras or not — was grist to his mill.
‘Dealing with the challenges and taking on the responsibility every single day means I have had to evolve and develop in a lot of different ways as well,’ he added. ‘I feel I am better equipped to come into a job like this because this is a very big job, as well.
‘The experiences of the last 17 months or so will help me cope with the challenges here.’
It’s easy, indeed almost expected, that any manager attempts to look at a situation which ended against their will with their glass half-full. In Ross’s case, you are inclined to believe him.
‘Just the intensity of the football in that part of the world,’ he reflected. ‘The two clubs in the north east, Newcastle and Sunderland, are big, big clubs with huge fanbases.
‘We played Boxing Day and there were 46,000 at the game.
‘The two Wembley games, the first, in particular — the Checkatrade final — there were 86,000 there, 40-odd thousand from each club.
‘It was relentless and intense. We had 61 games last season and travelled a lot, so that intense nature of it was significantly different from what I was used to before.
‘But it’s impossible not to enjoy leading teams out at Wembley or being in charge of a team that’s getting 30,000 fans every other week.
‘There were ups and downs, highs and lows, but taking the opportunity to be Sunderland manager is something I will never regret. It was a terrific all-round experience.’
The high expectation at Hibernian combined with the big city feel gives his new post a hand-in-glove fit. Having seen the club lift the Scottish Cup in recent times and compete in Europe, Ross is comfortable with the demands that exist.
‘Any club that enjoys successes has a thirst and a hunger for more of it and more of it quickly,’ said the 43-year-old. ‘But I don’t think those expectations are unrealistic.
‘For me, they should always be challenging for top four. They should always be challenging for European qualification. They should always be challenging for domestic success in terms of trophies in cup competitions.
‘The challenge is to do it consistently, every single season.’
For now, though, expectations are more modest. Having staggered from one poor display to the next under Paul Heckingbottom, the task is to take a couple of purposeful strides in the right direction.
‘There is very much a tradition of playing the game in the right way here,’ said Ross. ‘That’s ultimately what we want to get towards, but, to get out of the position we are in at the moment, we need to win games regularly.’
Eyes fixed forward: Ross is keen to move on with his coaching career after the end of his time at Sunderland