Survival of fittest as Jack Ross plots St Mirren's escape
Despite being a decade older than Ian Cathro, Ross, still only 40, is hardly a veteran. He is more than comfortable with the career path taken and is philosophical about the seeming setbacks endured, including when he suddenly left his position as Hearts assistant manager just over a year ago, scuppering plans for a “Liverpool bootroom” style manager production line.
Instead of rebuilding Hearts, the task Cathro was handed after Robbie Neilson’s recent departure, Ross is responsible for steering St Mirren away from peril at the foot of the Championship.
“There were circumstances and frustrations in my own job [at Hearts] at the time,” reflects Ross. “I have never really said much about it, and I probably never will. I always wanted to manage. When I came out of Hearts I was really lucky to get an opportunity at Alloa. It reaffirmed my view I could do it. It was the right fit at the time.
“I understand what you are saying [about the succession]. From my own perspective there’s no regrets. The way I’ve done it has been better for me. That’s not to say it’s for everyone, but for me to develop as a manager, it’s been hugely rewarding. Even now, and given the position we [St Mirren] are in, without the experiences I have had I’d have found it more difficult.”
Ross is spared anxiety about gathering much-needed league points today, when St Mirren travel to face Dundee in the Scottish Cup. Nevertheless, he can’t treat it as a completely carefree afternoon. Significance abounds.
No St Mirren manager is able to forget what happened 30 years ago, since a large photo of Ian Ferguson’s 1987 Scottish Cup-winning goal against Dundee United adorns their office at St Mirren Park. Jack was 11 years old then, a football obsessive about to pick an unlikely team to support given he lived in Falkirk, a short walk from what was then Brockville.
“We moved around a couple of times, eventually settling in the centre of Falkirk,” he explains. “One of my near neighbours was a Dundee fan, whose father was a season ticket holder at Dens.
“We were pals and I played football with him and his little brother, so started to go to games every Saturday with them, more or less. So I became a Dundee fan through default. At one point I even sold programmes at the Provie Road end at Dens – one of the games that sticks out is the 4-3 win over Rangers, when I was selling programmes before it.
“I watched Dundee home and away for a good few years. Strangely enough, I signed an S form with them when I was 13, although I am not sure they also knew I was a fan.”
Simon Stainrod was manager at that time. But it was left to his successor, Jim Duffy, to deliver the news Ross wasn’t being kept on after one season of full-time football. Ross was distraught. His ambition to be a footballer seemed suddenly extinguished. More cruel still, this disappointment was dealt by the club he supported, through thick and thin – and in those days, it was often thin.
“It was a big, big blow at the time,” he recalls.
Dundee’s relegation probably didn’t help Ross’s chances of being retained. “We were at Ibrox for the last game of the [1993-94] season, and it was the Friday before it when we found out who was being kept on and who wasn’t.
“It was as brutal as that. We complain about it and say it isn’t right but it’s part of the job, part of chasing that dream. It’s done that crudely, but I am not sure there is another way.
“I have done a lot of radio work over the years with Jim [Duffy]. He is someone who ever since I started managing has been really helpful. I don’t bear a grudge. I mentioned it to him once. He said he couldn’t remember – it made it worse!”
“But in hindsight, I can understand,” he adds. Ross reasons he wasn’t first-team material at the time. But who in his shoes wouldn’t have felt envy watching Neil McCann, an old housemate, and other peers such as Jim Hamilton go on to establish themselves at the club?
“It is a natural human reaction,” he says. “I didn’t go back to Dens for some time afterwards. I was still friends with Neil, so I think I went back to watch a game – about a year later.”
A stung Ross enrolled at Heriot-Watt University, graduating in economics four years later. He continued playing football at junior level, first at Lochee United, where he’d spent a spell while at Dundee, and Camelon, his local club.
“I did an article for the alumni magazine back when I was still playing,” recalls Ross, who lived at home in Falkirk while at university, something he accepts wasn’t the best recipe for integrating into student life.
“The best way I could describe myself as far as anyone who knew me was concerned is a miserable sod. I didn’t want to be there. I had a chip on my shoulder, I thought I should be playing football. I was stand-offish, went to lectures, did what I had to do, and went home again.”
But people were taking more notice of him in a football sense. Jack won a Scottish junior cap aged 21, signed part-time for Clyde and was offered full-time terms after another 12 months, having helped the club win the old second division title. He was by now in his mid-twenties.
It had taken longer than anticipated. But five years after his Dens rejection, he could call himself a full-time professional footballer again. He almost became a Scottish Premier League playing one sooner than he eventually managed with Falkirk. Clyde, however, were thwarted on the last day of the 2003/04 season, pipped to the title by Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Ross, in any event, had already signed a pre-contract with Hartlepool but his English adventure was an unhappy one, soured by a dispute with the club’s chairman.
“I played 30-odd games, was in good form and in a good place in terms of my own performance levels,” he says. But he found the travelling tough. His fiancée, now wife, Heather returned to Glasgow. “I wanted to go back up up the road, and the club had offers. But it became a personal thing with the chairman. It was much messier than it should have been. I said things I shouldn’t have said but at the time it was through desperation: ‘how do I resolve this?’”
Problem solving remains something he needs to be adept in. Deprived of defender Jason Naismith, who this week left for Ross County, but buoyed after signing Manchester City goalkeeper Billy O’Brien on loan, can Ross inspire an about-turn in St Mirren’s fortunes?
A draw at Dunfermline last weekend healed some wounds after a traumatic 3-0 home defeat to Queen of the South, when the manager made headlines by fronting up to unhappy fans. “There was no bust-up, no angry confrontation,” he insists, contradicting some reports.
“It was not just one person, it was other people too. But it was constant [abuse] from that one individual. I stayed out to shake hands – I am genuinely respectful of the opposition and referees. I was one of the last ones off the pitch and he was still at it, giving some quite heavy abuse. I actually couldn’t see who it was, just a sea of faces.”
Ross approached those booing, telling them he understood the frustration. “I was just saying it doesn’t help. If we are to achieve a common goal the players need support.” He has since had follow up conversations with some of the supporters involved, via e-mail and phone contact, inviting them to attend St Mirren training sessions.
“I told them: ‘I will show you how we prep’. I know I work as hard as I can. I am quite comfortable about that.”
Don’t think for a moment Ross isn’t relishing the challenge, even if the struggles have encouraged him to sign up for an extreme new hobby. What does a manager needing a break from feeling the heat for 90 minutes do? He signs up for Bikram yoga, of course, where sessions lasting 90 minutes are conducted in rooms heated to sauna-like temperatures.
“I always keep myself fit but found it so hard to switch off. I went with Heather the first time, really enjoyed it. But I returned again on my own. It’s 90 minutes when I don’t think about anything else.
“I’m like the tin man though, not very flexible,” he adds. But he’s prepared to put his back into avoiding the unthinkable scenario of St Mirren, 30 years after their famous Scottish Cup triumph, slumping into the third tier.