Only a few weeks ago, Jack Ross and James Fowler shared a common goal. They were working in tandem to ensure Sunderland reached the Championship.
A 2-0 defeat at the start of October to Lincoln City, the last time they occupied the same dugout, put another dent in these promotion hopes. It was a fatal blow as far as Ross’s managerial career at the Stadium of Light was concerned.
He departed at the start of the following week while Fowler, his assistant at Sunderland, before that, St Mirren, stayed on to lead the team in their leasing.com trophy clash with Grimsby Town. He left shortly afterwards.
Most presumed he would turn up by Ross’s side wherever the manager landed next.
But that wasn’t the case. Indeed, Fowler was the first to get himself fixed up. While Ross was still reported to be talking to both Hibs and Hearts, his erstwhile assistant was named the new head of football operations at Kilmarnock, his former club. He did so with Ross’s complete blessing.
“When I left Sunderland I had a staff there and the message I gave them was to do their job there,” explained Ross. “I said they had to look after themselves because you can’t rely on someone else getting a job and equally you don’t know what scope you have to bring a team with you if you get a job.
“In an ideal world you all move as one big happy group but it’s not like that. I knew this opportunity was there for him. I wouldn’t say I encouraged him – he had to make up his own mind – but we had a good conversation about it.
“Whether I helped make him believe he had the attributes I don’t know. But I think he’s suited to it.”
Ross did not even pretend there would be no contact before tomorrow’s match between Hibs and Kilmarnock at Easter Road. It has handed the pair a quick opportunity to re-unite – albeit Ross will be in the home dugout with new assistant John Potter, who was also at Sunderland, beside him. Fowler, meanwhile, will look on from the stand.
It is not realistic to expect two firm friends, who until two months ago had practically lived in each other’s pockets for three years, to suddenly break off contact, particularly before such a significant day.
“I’ve spoken to him since he got the job, just not this week,” said Ross. “We probably will speak tomorrow but if we do have a conversation there won’t be much about the game, more a general thing.”
Ross and Fowler almost certainly discussed what Christian Doidge could offer when they were at Sunderland. Ross admitted he ran the rule over the Welshman, as was the case with most strikers who scored regularly in the lower divisions in England. It’s Ross alone who is currently enjoying the benefit of having Doidge on his side. Fowler is well warned. “First of all, any player who is scoring prolifically in any of the three leagues outside the Premiership you are aware of,” said Ross. “And, for me, probably outside the Championship were the ones that would be flagged up. He got his move to Bolton then back to Forest Green.
“I was aware of him and was interested to see how he would do when I saw he was coming here in the summer. I have been impressed by him. He’s probably a bit different to what I thought – in a good way.”
Ross explained that the striker, who has now scored five times in his last three outings, is more mobile than he anticipated. “There’s more to his game than people imagine,” he said.
He also compared him to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich’s totemic striker. Eyebrows lowered again when he explained that by this he meant they have the goalscoring knack. Like Doidge, Lewandowski learned his craft in the lower leagues.
“Look back at Lewandowski before he went to [Borussia] Dortmund and why they recruited him,” said Ross. “If you look at his record through the lower leagues in Poland up to top league, he always scored goals. The fact Christian is scoring goals gives me encouragement he’ll continue to do that.”
Ross revealed Darren McGregor’s return to first-team action has been delayed slightly by the cancellation of two recent bounce games. The defender has not played since sustaining an abdominal injury in August.
“He has trained well, we just need him to get that game in and once he has had that he’ll be good to go,” said Ross.