As we build towards what will hopefully be a successful end to the season, some thoughts may already be wandering towards the 2022/2023 campaign and how the land will lie when we kick off again in August.
Will we be preparing for the return of the big clubs to the Stadium of Light, or gearing ourselves up for another League slog? Will Kyril Louis-Dreyfus have finally grasped the nettle and taken overall control of the club, or will the ownership situation still be murky and a source of unrest?
One thing that I think we can say with some confidence is that Alex Neil will be determined to build his own squad with players of his own choosing, or at the very least I would expect him to demand a major say in transfer affairs - assuming we persist with the current business model.
In that regard, there is a particular question that holds quite a lot of intrigue.
It surrounds Dan Neil, or more specifically the role he might play, whether he can continue to develop into an all-round midfield dynamo in the red and white stripes, or whether, heaven forbid, he could leave the club if we fall short in our promotion challenge.
As far as I can decipher, there are two distinct schools of thought on Alex Neil’s management of his namesake.
The first is that he is simply utilising him smartly, aware that he has slogged his way through a substantial workload during his first full season of professional football, and is not willing to risk overloading him at such a crucial time of the season.
The second? That he simply doesn’t see Neil as a fit for the midfield template that he has created, and that his current go-to midfielders - the likes of Corry Evans - are more suited to the kind of stripped-back, no-frills style of football that has characterised his time in the dugout so far.
On a recent podcast, I suggested that Neil is the kind of manager who favours the more organic qualities - work rate, graft, ball-winning ability- over genuine skill and stardust.
There is no doubt that Neil is not an old-school, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of player who will make crunching tackles for fun, but he is blessed with exceptional passing ability and a level of composure on the ball that can undoubtedly be the difference in tricky situations. I wouldn’t go so far as to label him ‘mercurial’, but he does have the kind of raw talent that we haven’t seen in an academy product for quite some time.
Looking at the bigger picture and reflecting on what has happened since August, 2021/2022 has been an eventful season for Neil, and his fortunes have fluctuated dramatically, much as the team’s have.
Last week, he was named as the club’s young player of the year, an award that was fully deserved - but it has not been entirely smooth sailing for him, certainly since the New Year, and perhaps in the long run that may be a blessing, as it could toughen him up mentally and give him a harder edge to his game.
During the early stages of the campaign, as we often resembled an automatic promotion-capable outfit, it looked as though there was no ceiling through which he couldn’t break. He was a central figure in the team, was turning in impressive performances on a weekly basis, and his first goal for the club was met with acclaim from all quarters.
As the winter set in, however, and results and performances began to fluctuate wildly, Neil’s form began to follow a similar trend, and as 2022 dawned, it was obvious that he had entered something of a downturn. He wasn’t affecting games to as great a degree and he often looked jaded & bereft of spark.
Complicating the picture even further, January rumours of interest from other clubs were never far from the conversation, and it was a relief when he signed a new deal after a period of uncertainty among the fanbase.
Another issue to consider was that Lee Johnson’s departure undoubtedly affected him, as it did many of teammates, and he has yet to rediscover his peak form despite some encouraging cameos from the bench, and a goal against Crewe that set us on the way to a crucial victory.
My personal belief is that, with the benefit of a good summer of training and a chance to recharge and regather himself, he has an excellent chance of becoming a regular starter for the 2022/2023 season.
Perhaps he will have to work doubly hard to earn his boss’s trust and show that he genuinely has what it takes, but if a clean slate is afforded to every player, there is no reason why he cannot do so.
Genuine feel-good stories have been reasonably scarce at our club in recent years. Neil’s rise was certainly one of them, and I really hope that the story can continue beyond the final game of this season.