For everyone connected with Sunderland, the 2021/22 season has been one of extremes, of genuine highs and crushing lows.
In terms of results, we’ve had the brilliant (the 5-0 home victory against Sheffield Wednesday) the terrible (a shambolic 6-0 defeat at the hands of Bolton Wanderers), and the crazy (an extremely frustrating 3-3 draw against Wycombe Wanderers).
There are many other examples that I could highlight, but these are three that immediately come to mind, and the highs and lows on the pitch have also been reflected in the club’s managerial situation.
Some fans may feel that Lee Johnson was unfairly sacked, having instilled a more positive style of football during the early months of the season, and with the club sitting third in the table at the time of his departure. On the other hand, plenty of fans clearly felt that it was deserved after so many heavy defeats, and that the decision was vindicated by the improvements that Alex Neil has made.
One issue that has been particularly divisive in recent weeks is the form of our club captain, Corry Evans.
On several occasions during the past few months, he was unfairly booed by sections of the Stadium of Light support, but with my tin hat firmly on, I am going to stick up for him.
I must admit that there have been times this season when I haven’t been overly impressed with Evans. Too often, he has been a peripheral figure in the heart of our midfield, resulting in games passing him by.
Under Lee Johnson, his performances were never particularly eye-catching, and compared to previous captains, such as Kevin Ball or Lee Cattermole, he simply didn’t exert as much influence.
Players like Ball and Cattermole were never the most gifted players in their team, but they would always lead by example - doing the hard graft, putting tackles in, and offering support and advice to their team-mates.
This meant that other players could look up to them, and in turn, the fans could identify with them and appreciate their efforts in a red and white shirt.
However, I do believe that Evans has improved significantly under Alex Neil. The no-nonsense Scot clearly has a lot of trust in him, and it is no coincidence that he has been central to many of our recent results, particularly when things have been fraught.
Sunderland’s midfield play has been much more impressive recently, and Evans has played a key role in that.
Collectively, there has been a far stronger desire to get on the ball, and to keep attacks going, particularly when we have been seeking late goals against the likes of Oxford and Shrewsbury.
We all get frustrated at the Stadium of Light when we are chasing a goal and visiting teams attempt to slow the game down and deny us any momentum, but Evans has been the key to maintaining the tempo when we have possession.
It is also evident that Neil has made Sunderland more defensively solid, and the number of goals conceded since he arrived- eight in twelve games- is proof of that.
This is another area in which Evans’ role has been vital.
His positional awareness, and his ability to effectively ‘screen’ the defence, has prevented plenty of dangerous attacks and threats from the opposition. Under Johnson, we were often vulnerable to quick balls played over the top, as well as rapid counter attacks through the middle, but I believe that both Evans (and Jay Matete, when he plays at his best) have afforded much more protection to the back four, which has resulted in us defending in a more composed fashion.
I have also noticed that, over the past few weeks, Evans has been conducting himself in the way that a captain should.
Recently, he has been extremely encouraging when communicating with our younger players, and has been much more vocal in driving the team on. This is always important if you have been chasing as many late goals as we have recently, and if your captain is spurring you on, that sends a very powerful message.
Our fans obviously have strong opinions on Evans, and a lot of people have already made their minds up on him. However, I believe that if you criticise someone when they’ve been playing poorly, you have to give them credit when they’ve improved.
I wouldn’t claim to be a massive fan of the player, but I do feel that he has warranted some praise for his recent improvement. Long may it continue.