“It’s great to have a manager who speaks normally.”
“I’d back him to get us up next season.”
“Very impressed with him so far. He’s done a solid job and I like how he’s identified weaknesses and addressed them.”
These are just some of the positive statements made about Alex Neil since he arrived at the Stadium of Light on a late-season salvage mission.
The no-nonsense Scot certainly hasn’t shirked the challenge so far, and has won over many fans with his down-to-brass tacks communication style and emphasis on picking up results in as efficient a manner as possible, but despite the promising signs, already putting faith in him for next season feels somewhat premature.
It is not unfair to view Neil’s short time on Wearside as an extremely mixed bag, in terms of both results and performances.
The undoubted highlight was a superb 3-0 away victory over Wigan, and home victories have been secured against Crewe and Fleetwood. On the other hand, there have also been frustrations, notably away at Charlton and Lincoln, during which positive performances were not topped off with results, as well as a morale-sapping defeat against MK Dons, and a dreadful home draw against Burton.
The net result is that, at the time of writing, we are outside of the playoffs, after Sheffield Wednesday thumped Cheltenham 4-1 on Saturday. In doing so, they overtook us to seize the fourth playoff spot with a two-point advantage, and also gained an edge in the goal difference column as well.
In terms of the overall picture, the main positive is the fact that, where once there was defensive weakness, there is now greater solidity, and the team as a whole is now much more organised and cohesive under Neil’s management. In addition, many individual players, such as Dennis Cirkin and Dan Neil, look to be recapturing their best form, which is a positive sign as we gear up for the final sprint towards the finishing line.
On the other hand, we have rarely played the kind of spritely, positive football that was seen regularly under his predecessor, and it has been a source of frustration that the likes of Trai Hume have seldom been granted an opportunity to show what they can do, as well as Neil’s ongoing and frankly bizarre reliance on Corry Evans.
In recent interviews, Neil has freely admitted that the development of youth is secondary to achieving results. That may well be the path of least resistance to success, but it certainly an approach that comes with potential drawbacks, and as he has adjusted the team’s style of play, more questions than answers have often been thrown up.
In my opinion, it is still very debatable as to whether Neil is the right man for us next season, whether that is in League One, or in the Championship.
With a minimum of seven games left and a maximum of ten, starting with a crunch encounter with Gillingham this weekend, we are entering the kind of territory where we have come unstuck in previous years, and where the team’s newly-instilled resilience is certain to be put to the test.
If we were to successfully negotiate the playoffs and secure that third promotion berth, would Neil be able to achieve what would undoubtedly be the number one target: survival during our first season? How much backing would he receive in order to do so?
On the other hand, if another season of L1 football is on the cards, would Neil have shown enough during his brief spell at the club to stake a claim to oversee a promotion bid next season? If Lee Johnson deserved to be fired for failing in the playoffs last season, why should Neil be judged differently?
The table does not lie.
Since January, we have fallen away from the automatic promotion race at an alarming rate. This was partly due to the form that preceded Lee Johnson’s departure; partly because two games were wasted as we searched for his successor, and partly because Neil’s arrival did not bring about a dramatic upturn in fortunes.
It’s incredibly easy to say that ‘we weren’t getting promoted under Johnson’, but the truth is that we will never know. The mantra of ‘firing the manager isn’t the problem, but hiring the wrong manager in the first place is’, has always seemed quite ropey. It’s easy to forget that, under Johnson, we did produce results and performances that did make you believe this would be our season, after all.
Alex Neil has certainly brought about some positive changes so far, but I do believe that more boxes need to be ticked before we can unanimously say that he is worth persisting with for next season.