Jack of all trades

By: League Managers Association

When Sunderland’s Jack Ross commits himself to achieving something he sees it through, whether it’s graduating in economics or becoming a soccer coach…

Jack Ross hails from a large, working class family in Scotland. His father worked throughout his youth as a labourer, married and started a family, before then impressively going on to start his own business. “How he dealt with life’s challenges and did alright for himself in the end really inspires me,” says Ross. “I think it also instilled in me many of the core values I have today, values that have shaped who I am as a person and a manager.”

Foremost among those values are a steely determination to succeed in whatever challenge he sets himself and the hard work ethic to make it happen. When, as a youth, his playing apprenticeship with Dundee came to an end it hit Ross hard, but having stayed on at school and worked hard, he had something to fall back on.

“At that time, there wasn’t much in the way of career advice or support for players who had been released from clubs, but luckily I had enough qualifications to get a place on certain degree courses, and I started a degree in economics at Heriot-Watt University,” he says. “I didn’t love the subject, but I was determined and it taught me discipline, perseverance and other skills such as IT and communication.”

Given the choice, though, his chosen subject would have been English. “It was always my favourite at school and I’m still fascinated by language and love to watch talented public speakers at work,” says Ross, who has even written and self-published two children’s books.
“I wanted to write stories that were educational and that had some kind of moral to them,” he says. “Each of the books takes a different problem that young children might experience at school and then uses an attribute of a successful footballer to help overcome the problem. ‘Alfie The Adventurous Winger’, for example, is about healthy eating and trying new things, and draws on the fact that wingers tend to not be afraid to try new things on the pitch. ‘Callum The Courageous Keeper’, meanwhile, is about dealing with bullying.”

Seeing such an endeavour through to completion takes time, patience and drive, but Ross says when he starts something he’s determined to finish it. “I’m glad I did,” he says. “It was something I really enjoyed doing and it was great to see the books in print.”

FIRST STEPS

Ross went on to have a career of around 12 years as a professional senior player, with one short period outside of Scotland, at Hartlepool United. He admits that while he was hardworking and professional as a player, he wasn’t one to sit back and mindlessly do as he was told, at least not unless he understood the reasoning behind it.

“I always had an opinion about how the team should develop and progress, and I wanted to know how and why we were doing certain things and what we were working towards,” says Ross, who was already preparing for his next move. “I took my UEFA A and B licences while still a player, because I wanted to be fully prepared should any opportunities arise towards the end of my playing career.”

When the time came to hang up his boots, he took a part-time job with the Scottish PFA, working on a sports betting integrity project, a role that later evolved into a full-time position encompassing other aspects of player welfare, such as mental health and career transition. Concurrently, he did some work for FIFPro, the worldwide representative union for professional football players, which led indirectly to another avenue of self-improvement.

“In my role for FIFPro I’d attend meetings overseas and often I’d feel a little embarrassed that I could only speak English, while others present were multi-lingual,” he says. “I was keen to try to learn a second language, so I attended one-to-one lessons at a language school over a period of eight months. I found I really enjoyed them and got to the stage where I felt my Spanish was pretty good. It improved even more, though, some time later when I joined Hearts and we signed a Spanish player who spoke very little English. I was able to converse with him and help him, and in turn my Spanish got stronger.”

INTO THE DUGOUT

While Ross was career minded, he wasn’t fixed only on management and his skills and qualifications could easily have taken him in a number of different directions. However, when he got his first taste of proper coaching, as assistant manager at then semi-professional Dumbarton, he relished the challenge and the responsibility, and knew it was something he wanted to pursue further.

“My time at Dumbarton, which included a stint as caretaker manager, was incredibly important, as it gave me a great foundation in the skills I’d need as a manager,” he says. “At that time, I was itching to push myself as hard as I could, to question and learn, but I was also acutely aware of how important it would be to find the right opportunity at the right time.”

His first full-time coaching opportunity came in 2014, when he was asked to join the coaching staff at Heart of Midlothian. “It was a difficult decision to accept the role, as I was enjoying my work and travel with the Scottish PFA, but it felt like the right fit for me,” he says.

While a valuable experience, it was to be a relatively short one. After leaving Hearts in 2015, Ross took a few months to weigh up his options. “I gave some serious thought to whether management was what I wanted to pursue or if I should look at other career paths. Ultimately, I knew I’d be able to tell very quickly during the early period in the role if management was for me,” says Ross, who was appointed manager of Alloa Athletic in December 2015.

“The thing that stands out most in my memory from those early days was the experience of being in the technical area,” he says. “I’d been there many times before as assistant manager at Dumbarton and as part of the Hearts coaching staff, but as the manager it was a completely different experience. Suddenly I was totally responsible. I was surprised at how surreal and different it felt.

“Otherwise, in terms of dealing with the overall transition to management, I think my coaching experience had prepared me well and I felt very comfortable in the role.”

After being unable to prevent Alloa’s slide to Scottish League One in his first season in charge, Ross led them to a record 10-game winning streak early on in his second season. The club was comfortably second in the league when his next career move came, in October 2016, to Scottish Championship side St. Mirren.

A successful first season, where Ross led St. Mirren to a seventh-place finish, was followed by an outstanding one, culminating in the Scottish Championship title and promotion to the Scottish Premiership. “I was so delighted for the players, the staff and the brilliant fans, because they put so much hard work, support and passion into it. It’s my job as manager to bring all of that together and I have an enormous amount of passion for what I do,” says Ross, adding that it was an important achievement in really validating his decision to go down the path of management.

“It takes a lot to faze me, but winning the Scottish Manager of the Year award that year genuinely shocked me, especially given the standard of the managers I was up against – the likes of Brendan Rodgers, Neil Lennon and Steve Clarke,” he recalls. “I turned up at the awards night with no idea that I’d win it and I was fantastically honoured and humbled when I did. My only regret is that I didn’t enjoy the moment as much as I could have, because I was so taken aback. I think it’s in my nature to not appreciate things as much as I should at the time, because I’m always thinking about what lies ahead.”

What lay ahead was a new phase in his career – in English football. In May 2018, he was appointed manager of League One side Sunderland who, under Ross’s leadership made a very confident and promising start to the 2018-19 season.

TRUST AND OPENNESS

Looking back over his career so far, Ross says he can already see how his approach to management has evolved since he started out. “I’m less controlling than I was, say, five years ago and the experience I’ve gained has given me more confidence in my methods,” he says. “At Sunderland, for example, I still design the training sessions and each day I put what we’ll be doing up on the monitors around the training ground, including in the changing rooms. It means that as soon as the players arrive they can start to think about what we’ll be doing that day.

“Hopefully, it feeds their thirst for knowledge and gets them talking to one another about the session, perhaps even questioning it. If it helps them to develop as players and gives them a better understanding of the game then that’s a good thing. I’ve always worked on the basis that if you’re open with your players and keep them informed then there’s no excuse for them to be unprepared.”

Empowering the players in this way, he adds, is also crucial because the players are all architects of the club’s culture. “Certainly, when I was a player, I always wanted to feel empowered and I’d thrive on responsibility,” he says. “I think if you have players that can deal with that then it can be a very good thing. But central to that is trust within the team – the trust I have in the players, the trust they have in what we’re doing, and the trust they have in each other.”

Trust is also vital, he adds, between the manager and his or her support staff. “Given that you’re spending a lot of time together, there also has to be some common ground between you and your backroom team, but it’s more important that they complement you, rather than being the same as you,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want my staff to agree with me all the time, as having a variety of characters and opinions is important. I also like to have staff around me who are ambitious, so I’m always encouraging them to learn and improve themselves.”

Throughout his life, let alone his coaching career, Ross has shown himself to be determined, focused and relentless in his pursuit of success, but there’s little of the hard, clinical edge you sometimes find alongside such qualities. Rather, Ross prides himself on his people skills. “I always try to remember that everyone I deal with, whether they’re in the playing or non-playing team, is a human being and they’re susceptible to the same stresses, worries, concerns and ups and downs as everyone else.”

Like all able and ambitious people, Ross is always looking ahead, but he is grounded with it, perhaps helped by the fact he still speaks with his dad on the phone each morning on the way to training. A gentle daily reminder of where he came from and what inspired him to succeed in the first place.