“How big’s your drawing board?”
I thought it was an innocuous enough opening question following Sunderland’s 2-0 defeat of Crewe, referencing Alex Neil’s comment about going back to the drawing board after the win in the week over Fleetwood, but unfortunately Alex Neil deemed it a two-footed challenge - and further into the post-match interview suggested I was clearly ‘frustrated’.
He reined in his comments saying he wasn’t trying to be smart, and afterward we shook hands with a big smile on his face. That’s football. We move on to Lincoln.
Ironically, earlier in the day I’d had a conversation in the press lounge about post-match interviews and how tricky they can be, more so when I have to take the lead which is the case at every home match, in front of the TV and newspaper reporters.
One knows your first question is important. It sets the tone for the rest of the interview but clearly, as Saturday illustrates, it can backfire. There is pressure from both sides. I have a job to do and Alex Neil has to face the media week in, week out.
My intention was to light-heartedly open the door for Alex Neil to address the performance which in spite of its paucity led ultimately to three points. I could have been more robust.
On Friday, Neil had said Sunderland needed to be ruthless against the struggling teams. Instead, they were toothless. I decided for the more tactful comment referencing his drawing board from Tuesday night.
It arguably illustrates the scrutiny - and the pressure brought - on the head coach.
Alex Neil has been tasked with winning promotion and is acutely aware any slip-up could be costly. There is little margin for error, and a match like Saturday’s at Crewe presents all sorts of dilemmas.
There has been a debate since the game over the quality of the performance and the fact Crewe put eleven behind the ball and were asking to be broken down. That Sunderland failed to do so until they changed tactics relatively late in the match is arguably a cause for concern.
Fleetwood exploited Sunderland’s slow start and scored first. Crewe were not as penetrative as Fleetwood but could have taken the lead.
The conversation had they done so would be very different.
Ultimately though the result was the be-all and end-all.
Teams like Lincoln City and Oxford will present different problems but they are better than Crewe and Fleetwood and Sunderland must strive to be more dynamic in the final third. They have the players to do so in abundance. They are keeping clean sheets too which is giving them a platform to be bolder in attack.
My wish is Sunderland can build some momentum ahead of hopefully finding themselves in the play-offs, and unquestionably it’s something Alex Neil is seeking too. One cannot just turn on the form tap in the play-offs. It’s a lottery at the moment as to who will make the top six because Sunderland has to play both Oxford and Plymouth for instance, and Sheffield Wednesday has MK Dons, Wycombe and Portsmouth to play with the latter two still in contention themselves.
Oxford has an unenviable run in having to face relegation-threatened Morecambe and Fleetwood and promotion hopefuls Ipswich, Plymouth and MK Dons as well as Rotherham.
There’s plenty of football still to be played with plenty of permutations, but to take advantage Sunderland need to find some clarity on the pitch. Those other contenders will also be looking for momentum.
The return to form of Dan Neil is timely as is Luke O’Nien back with the energy he brings to the team. Hopefully, Nathan Broadhead is going to be fine though the issue with his hamstring at the moment is a worry. The match at Lincoln will be a good barometer against better opposition. It was only a fortnight ago they beat Sheffield Wednesday at home, but Sincil Bank has not been kind to Lincoln this season. They’ve won only five and lost ten at home. Chris Maguire has been playing and John Marquis was an astute signing in January but Sunderland can’t allow themselves to get sucked into another Maguire show.
There is no question Sunderland can win at Lincoln but they have to show intent and their quality. Having no midweek match will help Alex Neil and Lincoln’s at Rotherham does them no favours ahead of the weekend. Sunderland has to capitalise on that too.
On the form of the last ten matches Sunderland has some catching up to do. They have won only 3. Sheffield Wednesday has won 8 and lost 2; Plymouth has won 7 and lost 2; Oxford has won 6 and lost 3 and MK Dons has won 7 and lost 0. The inference is clear.
Alex Neil is right though when he says Sunderland cannot look beyond the next match and that right now is Lincoln. The table may look healthier after the weekend. It may not. However, if Sunderland win they are doing what they have to do as they countdown to May and without question Alex Neil is slowly making things happen.
As my architect father will tell you, a drawing board can be a very useful tool when you are building things.