AS he walked out of what proved to be his final pre-match press conference as Sunderland manager last Thursday, Jack Ross was asked by BBC reporter Jeff Brown whether he was still okay to appear at a talk-in that is scheduled for next month. “Aye,” he laughed. “As long as I’m still in a job by then”. He knew he was skating on thin ice, and yesterday it finally cracked.

Just over 16 months after he was appointed, Ross’ reign as Sunderland manager has come to an end. He has become the ninth permanent manager to lose their job in the space of eight seasons, a remarkable statistic that says much about why the Black Cats have hurtled into a tailspin they still seem incapable of escaping from. Perhaps more significantly, though, he is the first manager to leave under the current ownership of Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. Having pledged to end the ‘revolving door’ policy that proved so damaging under their predecessor, Ellis Short, the pair have quickly learned that patience is not a word that readily attaches itself to Sunderland.

Has Ross been harshly treated? That depends on your assessment of what Sunderland are, or more pertinently, what they have become. If you subscribe to the theory that Sunderland are a fallen giant, way too big to be scrabbling around in League One, where they boast by far the biggest budget in the third tier, then Ross has clearly underperformed. Promotion was the target last season, and he failed to achieve it. If, however, you conclude, as he did, that Sunderland are now a League One club with League One players, then a record of seven defeats from 60 league games is not too shabby. Ultimately, however, it was insufficient to keep him in his job.

Bolton was the turning point, the afternoon when the pent-up frustration of a support that had long since abandoned the novelty of life in League One boiled over. There is no way back when thousands of your own supporters join in a chant of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” that originates from the opposition fans, but even Ross’ most ardent critics would have to concede he has achieved some considerable successes since leaving St Mirren in the summer of 2018.

It is easy to forget just how chaotic things were when he first walked through the doors at the Stadium of Light. He didn’t have enough senior players to form a first team for a start, and while Donald’s arrival had provided a degree of financial security after the traumas of the end of the Short regime, Ross had to deal with a series of problems that would not ordinarily fill the in-tray of a manager in League One.

Jack Rodwell, Papy Djilobodji, Lamine Kone, Didier Ndong. Ross tried to distance himself from the circus surrounding Sunderland’s off-field situation, but it cannot have been easy to shut such distractions away. Just when he thought he had got things under control, Josh Maja, his leading goalscorer, was sold from under him at the midway point of his first season in charge. The move made financial sense, but from a footballing perspective, Ross was paying for the flawed mismanagement of a previous regime.

Even so, he delivered some memorable moments. The Checkatrade Trophy was not at the top of Sunderland’s list of priorities at the start of last season, but March’s Wembley final against Portsmouth, which was lost on penalties, will live long in the memory. So too May’s play-off final defeat to Charlton Athletic, even if a failure to reach the Championship was a big black mark against Ross’ name.

Having previously managed at St Mirren, a club that had also experienced tough times, Ross bought in to the need to reconnect Sunderland with its fanbase. At talk-ins and supporters’ club nights, he was an impassioned ambassador for a club trying to reinvent itself.

And yet throughout his reign, it always felt as though he was just falling short. No other League One club could spend £4m signing Will Grigg. None of Sunderland’s rivals could afford to pay Aiden McGeady’s wages, or would have been able to retain Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oviedo last season. In a financial sense, Sunderland tower over their rivals in the same way that the wage bills of the big six eclipse those of the rest of the Premier League, but at no point in Ross’ reign has the club ever been at the top of the League One table.

Results have been okay, without ever being exceptional. Last season, draws proved costly. Sunderland recorded a remarkable 15 1-1 draws in the league, tossing away 30 points in the process. There have already been four more 1-1 draws this term, as well as the defeats to Peterborough and Lincoln, and an inability to kill off teams and play on the front foot has proved extremely damaging.

Perhaps the most damning criticism that can be laid at Ross’ door is that he is a naturally conservative manager in a position that demands ambition. It is neither delusional nor presumptuous to claim that Sunderland should not be scrabbling around trying to shut up shop when they are playing at home to Accrington Stanley or Shrewsbury, yet that is exactly the position they have found themselves in on Ross’ watch.

When results began to falter this season, most supporters wanted Ross to throw off the shackles. Having backed their manager in the transfer market, when he was adamant he wanted to keep hold of McGeady and Jon McLaughlin despite strong outside interest and sign Jordan Willis, George Dobson and Marc McNulty, Donald and Methven were also desperate to see more adventure and ambition.

Instead, Ross’ stock response was “we have to defend better and start keeping clean sheets”. A laudable aim, but hardly a viable tactical template in a league in which teams tend to win promotion because they can score goals. League One defenders tend to be playing in League One because they lack either the talent or concentration to consistently keep clean sheets. Yet, increasingly, Ross was pinning his hopes on them doing just that.

Sunderland’s squad is packed with players who have a proven goalscoring record in League One. Grigg, McNulty, McGeady, Charlie Wyke, Max Power, Chris Maguire – all boast impressive goalscoring records in the third tier or above, yet none have consistently shone in red-and-white. Why? Sunderland’s expected goals (xg) statistic, a measure of the number and quality of chances a team creates, provides at least part of the answer, highlighting the club’s low goal threat compared to most of the other teams in the top half of the division. Ross’ response? Tighten up further in order to win 1-0. Perhaps he was scarred by that madcap day in April when Sunderland scored four goals at home to Coventry City and yet still lost 5-4.

Having just about managed to hold things together in the wake of McGeady’s stoppage-time equaliser at Bolton, Ross might have survived had things not gone so badly wrong at Lincoln last weekend.

The anger that had coursed through the away end at the University of Bolton Stadium was replaced by a sense of apathetic inevitability at Sincil Bank, an even more damaging emotion when Sunderland’s financial model is so heavily reliant on maintaining current attendance levels at the Stadium of Light.

Had the proposed takeover by MSD Partners gone through, Ross’ future would not have been Donald and Methven’s problem. As the takeover process has dragged on in the last month or so, there is every chance they have willingly kicked the issue of their manager’s future down the road.

With the takeover stalling though, it has proved impossible to prevaricate forever. A decision was required, and it has resulted in Ross being dismissed.

Unlike so many of his recent predecessors, he does not leave as a complete failure. He steadied the ship, avoided a complete meltdown and got to Wembley twice. But he didn’t win promotion last season, and if you extrapolate a return of 19 points from 11 matches over the course of a 46-game season, he is not on track to finish in the top two in the current campaign. Ultimately, that is simply not good enough when you are managing Sunderland in League One.