So, it looks as if the deal has finally been sealed and we have a new head coach. Alex Neil. Not quite the box-office name that many of us would’ve hoped for, but after the club publicly flirted with Roy Keane for over a week, it’s fair to say that anyone else might’ve represented something of an anti-climax.
Recently, Keane’s knowing smiles and coy responses when asked about a Wearside return might have had many of us feeling nostalgic for the past, and hopeful about what might’ve been, had he made a sensational second coming at the Stadium of Light. The spirit of the 2006/2007 season remains as strong as ever for a generation of supporters after all, and it was certainly easy to see why Keane and Sunderland were still a potential match, even after 15 years.
On the other hand, perhaps it was all just an illusion, one that we all got caught up in – like listening to a song from your youth and trying to recapture the emotions and feelings of that particular time in your life. You might think you can, and maybe you think you have, but it doesn’t last, and eventually, you have to let it go.
There is no doubt in my mind that Keane would’ve lifted the fans and galvanised the players, but now that the door has been closed on him, we can at least move on and hopefully offer support to Neil, who takes over at a very precarious time for the club.
The appointment of Neil is fair enough, in my opinion. He has plenty of experience of English football and might well prove to be a shrewd appointment with time. The last Scot to manage this club ultimately paid the price for a failed promotion challenge in 2018/2019, but Neil’s pedigree is undoubtedly more impressive than Jack Ross’s.
The problems that he faces, however, cannot be ignored.
This is not ‘his’ squad of players, and he has precious little time to get a tune out of them as we try to get the ship back on an even keel after a truly dismal ten days.
At the moment, our players are, understandably, looking bereft of confidence and are desperately short of form. Can Neil instil a new, successful way of playing and solidify our defence with the resources at his disposal, and in such a short space of time?
Recent results have all but finished off our automatic promotion chances, barring a spectacular collapse from Wigan and/or Rotherham, so should securing a playoff spot now be our realistic target? Could Neil be the manager to break the playoff curse and get this club promoted via the arduous backdoor route?
History is not on our side in this regard, but that surely won’t faze the new man in the dugout, and hopefully, he will relish the opportunity he has been given.
Call it arrogance, but Sunderland should always be an attractive prospect for potential managers, and certainly at the moment. Get it right, and you’ll be the hero, the man who lifted us from the backwaters of League One and into the second tier.
For now, we simply need to get a winning feeling back, and to show that we are still a talented team that has simply gone through a very bad spell of recent form.
This is not a terrible squad, by any means. It is a young and admittedly lopsided one, with an on-field leadership vacuum, but that does not mean that all faith should be lost. If the likes of Dan Neil and Callum Doyle can respond favourably to Neil’s management, that would be a blessed relief, and it will be interesting to see how players such as Jay Matete and Jack Clarke, both of whom have made good impressions, factor into the equation as well.
If the decision to opt for Neil is a praiseworthy one, the process that led to it was nothing short of shambolic, and Kristjaan Speakman has a lot to answer for, because the past ten days have torpedoed much of his credibility as the club’s sporting director, and raised fears (again) about who actually operates the levers of power in the boardroom.
Why, for example, was there clearly no plan in place, that could be implemented after Lee Johnson’s departure, in order to make the transition as smooth as possible? Why didn’t the club move more swiftly, and not essentially throw away two league matches, if Neil was high on their list of targets? Was Kyril Louis-Dreyfus simply misguided or foolish to ‘like’ social media posts that hinted at a move for Keane?
For me, Dreyfus has been incredibly naive, and Speakman’s position is untenable.
The last couple of weeks have demanded clear thinking and a ruthless focus on the end goal, but instead, we have seen dither, delay, and a general lack of clarity that has given off an air of total unprofessionalism. He might well ride out the storm and cling on to his position, but he has been brutally exposed recently, without a doubt.
Whether we’ll ever find out the full extent of what has unfolded since Bolton is highly debatable, and there are still some deep-seated issues that need to be addressed, but at least we now have a new man in the dugout, and the state of limbo that everyone has been stuck in since we were hammered by Bolton has finally come to an end.
It’s another new chapter in this crazy, never-ending story of Sunderland AFC, and I’m sure it will be as unpredictable and often surreal as it always is. Welcome to the party, Alex!