How Jack Ross transformed St Mirren from relegation battlers to champions

Jack Ross celebrates with his players as St Mirren win the Championship title. Picture: SNS
Jack Ross celebrates with his players as St Mirren win the Championship title. Picture: SNS
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When you hear of a manager going into the crowd to talk with fans after a galling home defeat it usually signals the beginning of the end.

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Jack Ross did just that after St Mirren had fallen to a 3-0 home defeat to Queen of the South in January 2017, leaving the Buddies seven points adrift at the bottom of the Ladbrokes Championship. A few fans had expressed their displeasure at what they had just witnessed. Rather than bow his head, ignore the shouts and walk down the tunnel, Ross took the unorthodox move of going into the stand to have a debate.

It would be remiss to pinpoint that moment as the turning point for St Mirren. Yet, it was a scenario which increased the pressure, certainly from the outside looking in.

A year after that incident, Ross said: “I’ll never do it again unless we’re celebrating winning something.”

Well, get ready for Jack Ross to jump into the stand once more because the club are heading back to the top-flight.

Perhaps it may even happen this Saturday as St Mirren welcome rivals Greenock Morton to the Paisley 2021 Stadium where they will be presented with the league title.

It was the aim from day one of pre-season. Yet, when Ross took over the aim was simply survival. After replacing Alex Rae in October 2016, progression was slow and at times nonexistent to begin with.

The former Alloa Athletic boss encountered a squad who were not suited to the style he wanted to implement. The January transfer window would be a crucial staging post but in the meantime Ross had to make do. He gave teenagers Kyle Magennis and Kyle McAllister more pronounced roles within the first-team as he sought to inject energy and pace into the team.

Rather than adapt to the squad built by previous managers, Ross and assistant James Fowler adapted the squad. Ten players were brought in with seven playing key roles as St Mirren not only survived but prospered. It may have taken until 8 April and the 31st fixture to finally get off the bottom of the league but five fixtures later and the Buddies were seventh, six points ahead of bottom-place Ayr United.

St Mirren were top of the form table for the last 13 fixtures. St Mirren outperformed champions Hibernian, scoring nine more goals. Ross had solved the problem he faced when he was appointed. He had also laid the foundation for the following season’s promotion push. St Mirren were dynamic, attacking and playing with a verve.

The momentum which was built at the end of the 2016/2017 campaign allowed the club to hit the ground running in pre-season, while the shrewd recruitment carried out in January meant no overhaul was necessary. Of the team which started the season with a 3-1 win over Falkirk, eight players were at the club the previous season. Seven were in the team when the league was clinched.

Speaking to the BBC after the 0-0 draw with Livingston which confirmed promotion, Ross talked of the trust that exists between him and the board. He has been allowed to have complete control of the football side. It is a responsibility he has taken very seriously, bringing an impressive attention to detail to the role.

As well has having a huge influence on the playing side he has used his experiences as both a player and coach to help the club improve off the pitch, keen to immerse himself in all aspects of the football club.

Despite an early set-back, a 4-1 defeat to rivals Greenock Morton, the Buddies putdown a marker with a 3-0 defeat of a Dundee United who were favourites to win the league. In the first 18 games, the team scored three goals or more on seven occasions.

While many top teams dominate with possession, five other Championship sides have enjoyed more of the ball this season than St Mirren, Ross doesn’t want to see his side just to pass the ball around. He wants his teams to be creative and incisive, he wants his forward players to be aggressive and positive in their play.

The team’s opponents post more impressive passing stats but no team has scored more, had more shots or dribbled with the ball more. Only Morton have crossed the ball more times than St Mirren.

In Lewis Morgan they have had a difference maker, a match winner. Ross was adamant that he not lose him this season, the 21-year-old returning on loan after being sold to Celtic in January. Thirteen goals and eights assists have come from the player who injects searing pace, directness and an ability to shoot with either foot to the attack.

He netted both goals in a 2-0 win over United at the end of 2017, a result which took them five points clear at the top. Yet this isn’t a one-man team, Morgan simply sparkles within a collective, conjuring moments of quality.

One goal epitomises their approach more than any, the second in a 2-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic. With the ball starting with the defence it was played into Stephen McGinn who ran over it before taking a pass from Cammy Smith. Darting in from the left, Morgan was found by McGinn. The No.10 looked like he wanted to shoot before playing a devilish backheel into the path of Smith who finished excellently.

It was everything Ross had tried to instil and build in Paisley: dynamism, flexibility, rotation, creativity, positivity.

Knitting everything together in the midfield is one of the most under-appreciated footballers in Scotland, Stephen McGinn. His awareness and intelligence on the ball has allowed Ross to implement such an expansive style of play. He’s the on-field director as well as a guide to Magennis, who has been moved into a central area after the arrival of winger Ryan Flynn.

Like Stephen Mallan, McAllister and Morgan before him, the technically proficient 19-year-old has a big move on the horizon.

At the back Craig Samson, who has had his spell as being a figure of fun when in the top-flight, has been a consistent presence as the last line of defence, producing a number of big saves and big moments in games, while away from the pitch he is a big character.

With thoughts naturally switching to next season Ross has important decisions ahead. But he has proven capable of taking them. There was the decision to rebuild the team last January, while in recent weeks he has replaced two key players in the team with a positive outcome.

Gavin Reilly, who has netted 22 goals this season, made way for Danny Mullen. The mid-season signing from Livingston has acted more as a facilitator but played a crucial role as St Mirren edged towards the title. At the back, fans’ favourite Jack Baird was replaced by Gary MacKenzie who has been largely imperious.

Ross has admitted that he will have to evolve the team as they make the step up to the Ladbrokes Premiership. St Mirren were resoundingly beaten by Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup when they approached the game the same way they did league games. In an interview with The Two Point One he talked of a lack of physicality, especially in the final third, while noting they were will have to adjust to become a more counter-attacking team.

General manager and club legend Tony Fitzpatrick was ridiculed for suggesting St Mirren were traditionally a “top four, definitely top six, team”. He may have just been getting caught up in the emotion of the league win, but one thing is for certain, St Mirren are once again a top 12 team.

For that they owe Jack Ross an enormous amount of gratitude.

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