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Jack Ross: Managing the Modern Player

One look inside Jack Ross’ training notebook gives you a glimpse of the challenge coaches face managing the modern player. 

There on those specially designed pages with illustrations of training pitches and columns for tactical notes is a crucial corner. On each page there is a box that simply says: speak to.

It’s there as a reminder for the former Alloa Athletic, St Mirren, Sunderland and Hibernian manager, a cue to tell him which members of his squad he needs to catch up with that day. For many, it may seem like a small detail. For 45-year-old Football Careers client, Jack, it’s crucially important.

Ross — brutally jettisoned at Hibs after a poor run of form despite hitting every boardroom target set for him — is currently assessing his next career move after turning down the chance to return to his former Scottish Premiership employers, St. Mirren.

Jack’s rare slice of down-time gave us the perfect chance to catch up and examine the process and motivation of an educated coach who has never conformed to the norm. The shrewd Scot pondered the question we posed of what it takes to manage the modern day player and he stressed:

”I am fortunate that I enjoy communication and I would back myself as a communicator. I have always worked on the basis that I can talk to my players. Yet you can’t leave that communication to chance. I am a strategic thinker.

“My training notebooks have pitches and a place for notes on how we can make it better. I designed it myself. It also has a box on each page that says: speak to.

”There are always players you will gravitate towards, those who are better conversationalists. Then there are those who are harder work, who in truth, might not like you that much.

”I may not have spoken to them for four or five days properly and that troubles me, so I have to remedy that. So even as a communicator you have to possess a tool that makes you do that.”

Authenticity and communication in coaching

 

Jack, who holds a degree in Economics from Edinburgh’s prestigious Heriot-Watt University, admits that as a player he was opinionated and often sought explanations from those who coached him. There were times he was left disappointed and disillusioned by the response he got. He vowed when he became a coach to be more accessible to those he asked to buy into the vision of how he wants the game to be played. He reasoned:

“With the modern player, it’s about being transparent and telling them what we are doing and why we are doing it. That comes down to giving them daily, weekly and monthly schedules and discussing what’s involved in training that day.

“Nothing is a secret to my players because I hated that when I played. You might ask what we were doing in training and a manager would say: none of your business. I couldn’t be like that and I couldn’t work like that.

“The players have their schedules and over the years I have developed it as we have got to bigger clubs and had better resources. They will come in and on the TVs in the training ground will be the breakdown not only of what they are doing that day, but how many minutes they would spend on each component.

”I use a software called Soccer Tutor that allows me to display my sessions like that. I did it first of all to show I was being transparent with my players but then it evolved into an educational aspect. If it was a tactical day, they could see the phases of play first. The majority of the time players would look at it and understand what we were asking of them before they went on the pitch.”

 

Jack Ross, Scottish football coach, holding a Manager of the Year Award in 2018
Image: SNS Group

Authenticity builds trust, and few see through a fake quicker than a switched-on footballer. That’s why a coach who had often been frustrated in his efforts to have a constructive relationship with his gaffers always attempts to give his players the chance to speak up. Jack reflected:

“I feel that process with training is important with the modern player but equally so is consistency of communication.

“Listen, it’s easy to tell players that your door is always open: then you lose 5 – 0. You’re annoyed at them and the door slams shut. I have worked very hard not to be like that and I have always vowed that I would never walk past a player. That’s not softness to me — it’s humanity.

The decision to axe Ross at Hibs remains one that does not stand up to logical scrutiny when you examine his time at Easter Road.

He secured third place in the Scottish Premiership in season 2020/21 — the club’s highest finish in 16 years — to lead them back into European football. His side reached the Scottish Cup Final that year but were edged by St Johnstone, and this time round he guided Hibees to the League Cup Final on the back of a Martin Boyle hat-trick in a thrilling 3 – 1 Hampden destruction of champions Rangers.

Yet a torrid run of seven league defeats in nine games saw him sacked 10 days before he would have had the chance to lead his side out in that Hampden showpiece against Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic. As he has licked his wounds at home in Northumberland in the wake of his Edinburgh exit, Jack has had time to ask himself that burning question: just what is classed as success in football management these days? He said:

”My mantra is to make them better players and better people. That should align with a good environment to work in and a successful team, but it might not always happen like that.

”I look at Martin Boyle from Hibs, now in Saudi Arabia after a life-changing move. Lewis Morgan who I had at St Mirren was at Inter Miami and is now at New York Red Bulls. Josh Maja who we had at Sunderland went on to Bordeaux.

”I hope I played a part in making those guys better players and better people and if I did, then I judge THAT as success.”

Ross was 34 when he hung up his boots and he had heard the advice of taking aspects of every boss you worked under to build the coach you could become. He listened to it and respected the sentiment but in the end, he rejected it.

Jack was instead intent on remembering the key aspects of how he was managed that DIDN’T work and not falling into the trap of mimicking those behaviours. He confessed:

”I always wanted to be able to feel I could go and speak to my manager but it didn’t readily exist then. That might have been my fault and how I interpreted managers. I was always opinionated as a player and it was viewed as a negative. I encourage players to be like that now and I don’t mind being challenged or criticised as long as a line isn’t crossed.

“I always knew I wanted to be a manager and that this would be a big part of it: how I communicated would be key.”

Jack Ross stands outside Sunderland AFC's stadium
Image: chroniclelive.co.uk

”I examined what I wanted it to look like and much of it came down to those things I had experienced and didn’t want to use when I became a manager.

”Gregor Townsend, the Scotland Rugby Head Coach, did a presentation on my UEFA Pro Licence. He was outstanding and I remember spending a day with him after that. He told us that same key factor, that he recognised the parts he would NOT be taking with him on the journey from some of the coaches he had worked with.

“I loved the day I spent with him, it was fascinating to see how another sport worked. I’m eager to do more of that. What Gregor said resonated with me and I tend to look at others like the England rugby coach, Eddie Jones, who can be a bit Marmite for some people: but I find him interesting.

”He was a teacher and he took that background into coaching. I have his book in my office at the moment, alongside those of Bradley Wiggins, Andre Agassi and some other books on leadership.

“I know people want an answer that says you have an idol and I did work under some good coaches and managers, but I never wanted to be like them.”

Studying The Ross Record in management is an exercise in discovering a cautionary tale on the perils of choosing to lead a football team as an occupation.

At Alloa he made his name and emerged as a rising star in the dugout, leaving the club lying second in League One when St Mirren came calling. The bandwagon kept rolling, gathering pace as Jack masterminded a Scottish Championship triumph for the Saints to take them into the Premiership and be named the PFA Manager of the Year.

Feats such as these mean richer, more powerful suitors take notice. Bigger clubs, higher stakes and two exits that he has a right to feel can be described as unjust.

In his first season at Sunderland he led the Black Cats to the League One Play-Off Final at Wembley but lost out to Charlton Athletic. In the following campaign he was given just three months before a hasty sacking with his team lying sixth in the table.

Too many draws fed the frustrations at a sleeping giant of a club but it is worth reflecting that Ross lost just 10 of his 75 games in charge at the Stadium of Light and had a 50 per cent win ratio. When that statistic is mentioned, we swerve off the topic of managing the modern player as Jack muses:

”You know, there are fans of clubs that I have managed who feel I don’t show enough passion. Listen, if you think I’m not passionate about football? I love this game and I have ever since I was a four-year-old kid dreaming of being a player one day.

”Just because I don’t jump around like an idiot doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’m obsessed by this game and I have done jobs that have consumed me.

”I remember I spoke to Davie Weir when I got the job at Sunderland and I was reflecting on a squad of Championship players, Premier League players and World Cup players who were now in League One.

“It felt so different but Davie said to me: ‘If you’re organised and you communicate, you’ll have no problem.’ That reassured me that what I would do would get a response, it gave me a little bit of affirmation which maybe I needed at that time.

“I started coaching at Dumbarton and at that level there is another element: dealing with part-time modern players. Empathy with their personal situation is so important and I found that organised, structured and enjoyable sessions won the day with them. Then I moved to Hearts and worked in the Academy there and I had to educate younger players which was a very different challenge.

”I have done a lot of presentations for the Scottish Football Association now on the role of the modern manager. Towards the end of those talks I emphasise that there has to be fun too. For modern players I feel that is key in the environments you create.”

Jack Ross during his time at Hibernian FC
Image: SNS Group

Lessons in life, business, and football

 

There’s no question Jack has been wounded by the manner of his dismissal at Hibs. Yet after a holiday with his wife and family another layer of scar tissue is forming. The former chairman of the Scottish Professional Footballers Association and author of children’s books is readying himself for the next test. And he revealed:

“I think I was shaped a lot by watching my father start his industrial services business from scratch when he was in his early thirties. I was a nosy kid and I came to understand how he looked after those who worked for him. Running a business is the same as managing a football team in so many ways.

”I have also had to learn from my time at University and my work with the SPFA. I had some tough audiences doing that work, players can’t be bothered listening to the PFA guy! I’d there preaching to them about gambling rules but I was also learning all the time from people like Tony Higgins who was an ex-player who worked for the international players’ body, FIFPRO.

”He had an aura and he could hold a room, and I used to learn from how he worked. He used his physical presence and his knowledge with his audiences, others use a little bit of fear in a football dressing room. Whatever it is, you have to possess something that makes people want to listen.

”I feel the background I have has helped me to communicate with the modern player in that way. When I was a player, that lack of communication annoyed me. We’d lose a game and the manager wouldn’t talk to you.”

Jack grew up in the game mostly in the era of command coaches: do as you are told.

That’s not the way the Millennial and Generation Z players he works with now learn though. Ross doesn’t rail against it, he embraces it and enjoys that aspect of moulding the modern player. He pointed out:

“Each morning I still go out and set up training with the staff because I am a visual learner and I need to see the field to see how it is all going to pan out. I looked at how players learned when I started out as a coach: those who are visual, those who like to be told instructions, and I have always been conscious of that. Analysis, for instance, is still a relatively new tool and it’s about how you use that.

“One key in modern management is understanding your group. Who prefers the information one-to-one, who likes it to be visual in a unit with the defence, and who just wants to be spoken to with the team.

I am in a unique industry but there are so many parts of it that are no different from being a leader or an educator in another walk of life.”

Yet at the age of 45, how do you empathise with a player stressed out by abuse on social media? How do you relate to a kid whose playing journey is so drastically different from your own without resorting to the Glory Days stories and telling them they don’t know they’re born? It is a delicate balancing act, a battle to remain both relevant and authentic. It’s a critical aspect of managing the modern player. Jack admitted:

”One part I have realised is that every year I do this, I get a year further away from the age of the young players coming through. You have to be aware of that, we are all 18 years old still in our heads! Before we left Hibs, I wanted a coach who was closer in age to the playing group and that was why we looked to David Gray, who was retiring as a player.

”There are aspects of what they do in their lives that I find perplexing. I had a player who was having a dip in form and he was taking stick in social media and on fans’ forums. His dad was telling him about this and showing him it. His confidence was knocked and he had the sense to tell his dad to stop talking to him about it which was a great start. I could have told him to man up and get over it, but I have found you are far better looking deeper.

“Reading negative comments about yourself is not nice. Yet young players also have to learn that sadly, you need the skin of a rhino to do this job. I couldn’t sugarcoat life and tell him it would never happen again, but you have to help them find their coping mechanisms.

“If it was easy to become an elite player then everyone would make it: but it is actually damn hard.”

It has been a fascinating hour, listening to one of the game’s most intriguing coaches examine the question of managing the modern player. As we move into extra-time, Jack recalls one of his proudest moments and how it made him pause to honour those who had paced the technical area before him. He recalled:

”When I got the Manager of the Year award at the PFA dinner a few years ago I could see veteran managers like Aberdeen and St Mirren legend, Alex Smith, in my eye-line. I chose to acknowledge how they worked.

”They understood people first and foremost and modern coaches get forgetful of that. There are so many discussions now about soft skills and how you can develop them, but so much of that has to be inside you.

”I get asked a lot to define my managerial style and I think there is an element of traditional man management that will always need to be there. For me, Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest and the major factor is that he understands PEOPLE first and foremost. Forget about the tactics and the training for a moment.

“He just knows how to get the best out of people. That will always be at the heart of it.”

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