It was the news that all of Sunderland wanted to hear.
No – the Cooper Rose isn’t back open... yet. I mean, of course Dan Neil, the South Shields Iniesta, has signed a new four-year deal until 2025.
I can’t be the only one that punched the air and celebrated the fact we’ve managed to get our most prized asset contractually tied down for the next few years.
It’s been surprising how quickly Neil has developed. He has gone from youngster on the fringes to now suddenly becoming a key player in the squad and the transition has been instant and seamless.
His performances completely belie his years. I watch in awe as he shows composure and technique on the ball. His vision, range of passing and first touch make him look like he’s played 400 games and yet he doesn’t turn 20 until a month’s time.
His age also means that he’s only going to get better and better. With the more experience he gets, the more his technique will grow and his body will develop physically. All of this will contribute to making him an improved all-round performer.
There have been comparisons made between Neil and another Sunderland academy product, Jordan Henderson. Both are midfielders with unlimited energy and superb technique. While Henderson burst onto the scene while we were in the Premier League, quickly gaining admirers, Neil may have to bide his time to get such recognition.
Staying at Sunderland will surely be helpful to Neil himself. If he was to be lured away to a Premier League or Championship, the finances might be better but how much would he learn and improve? The move may unsettle him at such a young age and he would surely see less first-team football and may stagnate both as a player and as a person.
Tying him down is a very big statement from Sunderland AFC on the whole.
Part of the problem in recent years – both in terms of the results on the pitch, as well as the development off it – has been the lack of youngsters coming through the ranks.
It seemed criminal given the superb facility at the Academy of Light and training available there that there weren’t many academy players breaking through into the first team.
The amount of players Lee Johnson has integrated into the first team is growing and with Neil at the forefront, it serves as an incentive to those who are seeking to follow in his footsteps and break through. The likes of Harrison Sonha, Ellis Taylor, Ollie Younger, Stephen Wearne and others will be hoping to emulate the midfielder.
It signals a change in policy for the club. For a while, our record in the transfer market hasn’t been particularly great. Part of the idea must surely be to use the academy to develop homegrown talent and then successfully transition them into the first team – thus reducing our outlay on transfers. If these players increase in talent and value as Sunderland elevate through the leagues, then the benefit is two-fold.
In previous years we have failed repeatedly to manage our youngsters’ contracts and development. We have either allowed their contracts to run out, their heads to be turned or cashed in prematurely. The likes of Joel Asoro, Josh Maja and more recently Joe Hugill and Bali Mumba have all departed for less than satisfactory fees.
We, of course, have to face the sad reality that we are – at the moment at least – a League One club. Our ambition must always be to reach the highest possible level again however long it takes.
We get called arrogant by other supporters but there’s nothing wrong with rational ambition. If we are to progress and make the charge to the Championship and then build from there, I see no better figure to build a team around than Dan Neil.
If, in the next four years the worst does happen and a Premier League team makes an offer that's ‘too good to refuse’, at least we know that they won’t be pulling our pants down. We have negotiated well enough to fight for a deal that’s right for the club.
Securing Neil’s contract signals a welcome change in policy for Sunderland. I’m sure we can all drink to that.