Dan Neil continues to look the real deal
At what point will we run out of superlatives to describe Dan Neil? Seriously, hands up who thought that he would have elevated himself to a position of such importance before the campaign started?
“I’d probably say that we would keep him with us until Christmas and then reassess,” said Lee Johnson during pre-season after handing Neil the armband for the first half against Spennymoor Town. I think Johnson will admit deep down he has been taken aback by his emergence considering he didn’t even know if he wanted to keep him beyond January.
Really though that is no criticism because Neil has been nothing short of superb. Yes, this is League One, and yes the quality of opposition is clearly inferior; however, the fact remains that it is not inaccurate to compare Neil to some of the midfield maestros of years gone by at the Stadium of Light who have plied their trade at the top level.
His vision is superb - he ran the midfield at the Eco-Power Stadium; he is the sun in the centre of our side which everyone else revolves around.
Worryingly, it is not a question of can Dan Neil grow with Sunderland AFC, but can Sunderland AFC grow with Dan Neil?
And what of this rumoured £3m bid from Burnley. The vast majority of that estimated value will have been added since the opening day against Wigan. So what price at the end of the season? Or in July 2024? Because don’t forget, he is contracted until 2025. To sell now would be incredibly short-sighted - however it surely won’t happen. To do so would only give ammunition to those people out there who do not want to give KLD or Lee Johnson a chance - probably because of some bizarre vendetta they have playing out in their heads to an audience of one - themselves.
There’s always an element of nervousness watching Sunderland - it must be the same for most fans out there; though when Neil is on the ball, it has a beautifully calming effect - because you know what he is going to do. One touch to set himself - and one to distribute the ball; whether that is out wide, through the middle or going long.
It was also encouraging to see his willingness to get forward. He’ll probably be disappointed to not get on the scoresheet after he burst through the Doncaster defence in the opening period. Though this isn’t an attribute we’ve come to expect of him - seeing his desire to take on defenders is welcome. I suspect, though I cannot be sure, that this is all down to Neil knowing in his heart of hearts that he is playing at a level far below his ability.
Embleton stakes his claim
You have to spare a thought for Elliot Embleton. Brought back into the fold this season, only to find his ability to influence proceedings limited by the emergence of others and suspension.
He will be delighted today, though. Arguably Embleton was man of the match, and boy did he need it after a few rather anonymous performances. Perhaps anonymous is a little harsh, but he certainly hasn’t shown of late what he is capable of. However, his running into space, exploiting the gaps in the Doncaster backline bought him the goal he deserved. It was an indication of how well he can read the game.
A large part of the frustration that has dogged his season is because it isn’t clear how exactly he fits into the side. His best performance to date came versus Cheltenham as the triumvirate of him, Stewart and Broadhead eviscerated a bewildered Robins backline. In that display, like today, he thrived off the ability to be mobile, and the ability of others around him to be mobile too.
There’s a gap in the side now with Nathan Broadhead being out the side for the foreseeable future, and Johnson’s set-up today indicates how Embleton could fit in.
The league table takes on a different complexion
There is no doubt about it, we as a club and a league are heading into uncharted waters. Covid is ravaging through the league and perhaps the best decision by the players at the club was to get vaccinated, with all but one getting their jab.
That means - subject to change - that if any close contacts of players test positive, they do not need to self-isolate, meaning they can still play. Plus the likelihood of them catching it in the first place might (might!) be lower due to having protection.
That decision bore fruit in the first set of Christmas fixtures. Firstly, Sunderland played - even though Aiden O’Brien had tested positive. How many would have had to self-isolate if they hadn’t had their jab? Regardless of how you feel about covid, whether you should get your jab, or if Bill Gates is listening to you take a morning dump through your 5G, protecting the club from having games postponed is vital.
If all the fixtures had gone ahead, do you really think we would have been in the automatic promotion spots? Not likely, considering Wigan were playing Crewe. The psychological impact of this is yet to be known, but our experience of this league is that games in hand mean relatively little if they come late on in the campaign.
No fixture pile-ups, lower chance of injuries, and an increased freshness for the latter matches means we will hopefully be in a strong position come April - when in previous years it’s been the reverse. Add that to no cup games to consider, then things look rosy.
The three points must be backed up
League games, they come thick and fast right now. For Sunderland, at least.
Next up is Sheffield Wednesday. Unbeaten since September and very dangerous, although they smell very much like a Jack Ross 2018 vintage. They are lovers of stalemates, there’s no doubt about that.
But - considering the fixture list coming up, a draw is no good. Three points are vital, and the impressive performance against Doncaster must be backed up. This is a Sunderland side in good form, and they have to turn the screw.
Also, Wednesday were the last team to beat Sunderland, who served up a platter of visual botulism at Hillsborough in November. It was perhaps the game in which we all thought “hold on, maybe we’re way off the pace here, despite what we thought”.
Time to put that right.