As he conducted his post-match interviews by the side of the Plough Lane pitch on Saturday evening, Alex Neil gave off the air of a man who had walked into the Sunderland job with his eyes open and without any fear of the challenge in front of him.
Despite seeing his team held to a frustrating 1-1 draw, a result that leaves our season in no-man’s land with fourteen games left- too far from the top two to have a realistic chance of overhauling them, and not yet certain of a playoff berth- he did not appear to be shocked, or otherwise rattled by what he had seen.
After an incredibly frantic twenty four hours, during which he oversaw a brief training session on Friday, before making the trip to London and then being officially unveiled as head coach, Neil seemed to be taking everything in his stride.
Regardless of whether he was genuinely relaxed about his prospects, or simply grateful for the chance he has been given, it was nonetheless impressive to see how quickly he appears to have slotted in.
It goes without saying, however, that his in-tray is overflowing right now, and that there will be no so-called ‘honeymoon period’ for him, with our season on a knife-edge and a sense of uncertainty as to what the future holds.
There is no doubt that Neil has been dealt a very tricky hand, with a squad that is woefully out of form, and with its confidence and morale on the floor. He eluded to this as he analysed the game, noting the mental & physical malaise affecting many of the squad’s younger players and the need to manage them smartly with limited resources.
It was a valid observation, and will doubtless ramp up the pressure on the already beleaguered Kristjaan Speakman, who can consider himself incredibly lucky to still be in a job, after the events of the past fortnight.
That Neil effectively saw fit to lambast the club’s January transfer business, despite barely having stepped over the threshold, tells a story in itself, which leads onto the wider point about how he was actually appointed.
Had the board not been guilty of dithering and fudging as they attempted to fill the vacancy after Lee Johnson’s sacking with an ill-fated attempt to lure Roy Keane, Neil might have found himself in post sooner and with more time to make an impact.
It was to his credit, therefore, that he didn’t seem fazed by the scale of the rescue mission he is embarking on.
In terms of his long-term success or failure at Sunderland, Saturday was not decisive for Neil, and as a chance to see exactly what he has to work with and how best to tackle the multitude of issues we face, it may prove invaluable.
He needs time to get the squad fully attuned to his preferred style of play, and will doubtless be wasting little time in establishing who his on-field generals will be.
In that sense, it feels like players such as Bailey Wright & Alex Pritchard are tailor-made for the new boss, as they do seem capable of maintaining a consistent standard of performance. Jay Matete will be a key player as well, and it seems certain that his aggressive midfield play will be exactly what Neil is seeking.
There is every chance that Neil could turn out to be an effective motivator with the ability to affect games at crucial stages. He might not have been first choice for many fans, and won’t receive the hero’s welcome against MK Dons that Keane would have, but once the smoke clears, he’ll definitely be given a fair chance.
Even in the infancy of his tenure, it is obvious that Neil is closer to the profile of an abrasive, hard-nosed kind of boss than his predecessors. If Lee Johnson was too chirpy & Phil Parkinson too dull, it seems that Neil is cut from a different kind of cloth entirely.
After a year of Johnson and his penchant for colourful analogies and eagerness to be liked & respected by players and fans alike, you get a sense that Neil occupies a spot at the opposite end of the spectrum.
It is safe to say that POMOs and shark references won’t be part of his philosophy, and that he has little interest in being anybody’s best friend. He is here to make an impact, to whip a beleaguered squad into shape, and to give the fans reason to believe again.
If he keeps his analysis simple and deals in home truths after games, half the battle will be won. Back that up with results & a genuine sense of forward momentum, and he will gain favour with the fanbase very quickly.
The team may still be struggling, but Neil has made a good first impression. There will be greater challenges ahead for him, but this was a solid, if not overwhelmingly positive, first impression.