Sunderland fans love nothing more than seeing a young footballer who has sung alongside them in the stands living the dream of pulling on the red and white shirt and representing the club on the pitch.
But when that player turns out to be one of the most promising young talents to emerge on Wearside for many years, the excitement reaches almost fever pitch.
Dan Neil started out at his hometown club, Hebburn Town – a real production line of players in men's and women’s football – and quickly graduated to the Sunderland AFC academy, representing England at Under 15 level along the way.
His first appearance for the senior Lads side came as a 16-year-old under Jack Ross in a Checkatrade Trophy game against Morecambe back in 2018, but he first caught my eye in a friendly under Phil Parkinson against Gateshead as football re-emerged following the coronavirus lockdown of 2020.
A bad knee injury had kept him out for the best part of two years, but when he came on against the ‘Heed to replace Elliot Embleton in an advanced midfield position, he looked classy on the ball, positionally astute, and played one particular through ball that set the Roker Report WhatsApp groups alight.
Sometimes the vision and weight of one pass can indicate the potential of a player – and boy, what potential this fella has!
This season under Lee Johnson, Dan has taken every opportunity to establish himself in the side, starting the campaign filling in at left back and opening his account with perhaps the best debut goal we’ve seen for many a year in front of the Roker End against Accrington in September.
Now he is the beating heart of this promotional-challenging Sunderland side, and he’s back in the England set up too, playing the majority of the Under 20s’ 2-0 defeat against Portugal last month. His new four year deal at the club was heralded as a milestone in the rebuilding of our club – no longer will our best young players be gobbled up for a pittance by sides higher up the pyramid.
Lee Johnson has compared Neil to a young Paul Gascoigne, and he really is destined for great things in the game. The gaffer and has placed his faith in him as a mainstay of the side and he can rightly claim to be one of the first names on the team sheet right now.
If he plays his part in getting us promotion to the Championship this season, who knows how far Sunderland can go with young Daniel at the centre of things. He’s currently amongst the leading assist-makers in League 1, and with a passing accuracy above 80% his quality is there for all to see and we can be sure that scouts from across Europe will be keeping a close eye on his progress.
Dan’s also clearly a lovely lad, spending time playing video games with schoolchildren on visits and also gives a class interview as well (he will also be donating to the Soup Kitchen appeal after losing a table tennis challenge at the training ground this week).
Happy birthday Dan, we all hope you enjoy it!
Dan Neil's verdict on this afternoon's win against Plymouth Argyle.— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) December 11, 2021
Dan Neil lost a game of table tennis against a former county table tennis player who works at the training ground, which resulted in a charity donation to the fundraiser!— Roker Report ❤️ (@RokerReport) December 12, 2021
Little birdie tells me he had no idea about her credentials before accepting the bet…#SAFC pic.twitter.com/B3cOBzacDr