From the moment he arrived at the Stadium of Light, Alex Neil has been all business, with little time for niceties. His press conferences are often prickly affairs, and although he will always answer the media’s questions, he often does so with barely-disguised annoyance at certain topics or inane questions.
Here is a coach who clearly prefers to spend his time on the training pitch, in the dugout, and with his players in the dressing room. Simply put, he is not here to mess about, and his belligerence is filtering through to the team’s efforts on the pitch.
In recent weeks, the team has been transformed from soft touches into a squad of battlers. Under Neil, every player knows their role, and their approach to each game is not based on arrogance, but with a clear belief that if they execute the plan, they should be coming away with three points.
The late goals, of which we have scored many and have brought a fresh impetus to our charge for the playoffs, are indicative of the steel that Neil has brought to the club. In addition, players such as Bailey Wright and Corry Evans are really coming to the fore, and their experience and leadership is proving invaluable.
Under Lee Johnson, there was always a belief that the squad was capable of getting out of this division, but during his time in the dugout, the players could also be brittle and prone to making poor decisions.
If things were not going their way, it was far more likely that we would witness a collapse and a heavy defeat, rather than having genuine faith that the players would stand strong and maintain their discipline in order to reimpose themselves on the game.
There is no doubt that Neil has changed that, and his in-game management has been one of the key aspects.
In recent weeks, astute and well-timed substitutions have often played a huge role in Sunderland’s results. That is something he deserves credit for, and as a result, we are picking up momentum at the exact moment that it is needed.
At this stage of the campaign, form is key, and if possible, we need to try and storm into the playoffs, rather than limping, as we did last season.
In my opinion, Sunderland look like a team on a mission, single-minded in its pursuit of three points in every game, and willing to do whatever it takes in order to secure a victory.
Saturday’s game against Cambridge illustrated this new ethos perfectly.
Having taken a two-goal lead against ten men, we fell asleep after the restart and allowed Cambridge to halve the deficit.
In times gone by, the team would have faltered, panic would have set in, and we would have put ten men behind the ball and attempted to hold onto a slender lead, with the inevitable consequences.
On Saturday, there was never any hint of panic. Instead, the team hit back powerfully, scored a superb goal to make it 3-1, and ultimately saw the game out with ease. What was also noticeable was the way in which the team visibly enjoyed themselves, and that is something we should all be appreciative of.
As Sunderland fans, we have become accustomed to looking at the playoff picture and working out who we do not want to face, on the basis that they might ‘have too much for us’.
That is no longer the case.
We are now able to field a team that is confident, full of belief and with the resilience to grind out results if necessary. In many ways, the squad’s mindset is a reflection of its manager, and we are looking increasingly like a team that nobody will want to play if a playoff place is secured.