Alex Neil has been here and done it before
I know that Alex Neil isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that there are still people who are annoyed by the sacking of Lee Johnson – and the fallout on the back of it that has led to us going from automatic promotion hopefuls to ‘just one of the chasing pack’.
But, actually, I think he’s doing a very decent job and, importantly, he’s been in a very similar situation to this one at another club before and managed to get them promoted through the play-offs.
Norwich were floundering outside of the Championship play-offs back in 2015 when Neil Adams was eventually relieved of his position. With fans expecting the Canaries to make an immediate return to the Premier League following relegation, their owners made a left-field choice in appointing Alex Neil, the then Hamilton manager, as the man to lead the team out of the division.
The gamble paid off as Neil made the team more resilient, got them winning games again and keeping clean sheets. Norwich made the play-offs, got to the final, and won it.
It wasn’t pretty, but the plan eventually came together. He then used that summer to build the team in his own mould, slowly but surely improving the style of play.
Now I know it’s not just as straightforward as appointing him to do the same job, but it’s vital experience to draw upon and, you have to admit, he is making us harder to beat, and we are grinding out points. This gives us a good base to build from for the remaining games – having a manager in place who knows what he’s doing in the play-offs could give us a leg up on several of our promotion rivals as it comes down to crunch time.
Our squad is getting stronger, fitter and deeper than everyone else’s
While I’m not entirely convinced by Sunderland’s defensive options, we are becoming harder to beat (more on that later) and that in turn means the forward players have a little less pressure on them than they perhaps had under Lee Johnson to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
Alex Pritchard and Nathan Broadhead are on the verge of a return – who else has such fantastic options coming back into their side? Aiden McGeady might yet make a glorious return for the last few games, and the two-week break has afforded the likes of Danny Batth, Luke O’Nien and Arby Xhemajli the chance to get more up to speed.
In my view, we’ve got better depth than just about every team in this league and we now have to make that count at the most important stage of our season.
This is a huge advantage because it means that Alex Neil can afford to be picky and it keeps players on their toes – one bad performance and you could be out of the picture.
We have the league’s top scorer
When you have the best attacker – and some would argue defender, because he defends so well from the front, in the league – it makes everyone sit up and take notice.
Ross Stewart has had a fine season to date and he’s got lots to prove – not only to his teammates and manager, but to potential suitors from other leagues who are perhaps watching with interest to see if Sunderland get promoted or not.
And I know that some of you reading this might not like that, but it’s true – there won’t be a shortage of interest in him whether we are promoted or not, and subconsciously that will be playing on Stewart’s mind as he looks to continue scoring goals and putting in top performances.
Ultimately, if he’s playing well then that can only benefit us.
His brief stint away with Scotland will have given him a fresh perspective on things and might also provide added motivation, particularly so that he can show Steve Clarke why he should have given him a chance to play in one of the two games that went on while he was in the camp – neither of which he took part in.
Stewart is the most difficult striker to play against in the division and that puts even the best sides on notice and forces them to play differently, which could work to our advantage.
We’re becoming tougher to break down
Prior to the last seven or eight games it took a very simple game plan from teams to take points off us – all they had to do was sit behind the ball for 90 minutes, waste time from the first minute, and take advantage of our poor defence from set pieces and long balls.
We’ve dropped so many points from those situations this season that it’s just maddening – but, bar the odd hiccup here and there, the amount of clean sheets we’ve picked up and goals we’ve conceded shows that we’ve made big strides forward defensively.
And as the games against Fleetwood and Crewe showed, when teams come up against us with that game plan we have a way around it.
That’s a huge positive, and I imagine our resolve will be tested in a similar way again on Saturday when another struggling side in Gillingham roll into town looking to be the latest team to upset us.
If we can pass that test once again, I’ll be hugely confident in our ability to pick up good results right up until the last league fixture of the season.
We’re (quietly) gaining momentum...
As all of the above suggests, we’re very quietly getting our shit in order and picking up positive results, even if performances don’t always live up to standards.
There’s still a long way to go, and we can only take one game at a time, but everything I saw before the international break suggests to me that we do actually have what it takes to get promoted. Now we have to build on the groundwork we’ve put in place to hopefully win more and more games, one step at a time.
I could look very silly by teatime tomorrow if it turns out we couldn’t beat Gillingham, but I can only write in the present and, as I type this, I’m actually pretty confident we’ll get the job done – and eventually win a bloody game at Wembley.
Ain’t that the kiss of death?