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Barnsey’s Blog 20/21

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Barnesy’s Blog: Where does Alex Neil’s future lay beyond the end of this season?!

“Bonkers. Absolutely bonkers!” says Nick Barnes, who can’t remember an ending to a season like it. How will Sunderland finish up, and what will it all mean for Alex Neil’s future as Head Coach?

Danny Roberts

Bonkers. Absolutely bonkers.

I can’t remember a season ending quite like it.

I have a theory based entirely on a whim that Sunderland will be promoted because Exeter City have finally been promoted to League One following three failed play-off final attempts, and the two are destined never to meet in the League.

The permutations for the final day of the regular season are myriad, and I have to thank Rob Mason for the following:

  • Win - into the play-offs.
  • Draw – into the play-offs unless all these three things happen... 1) Plymouth win, 2) Wycombe win, 3) Sheffield Wednesday win or draw.
  • Lose by a one or two-goal margin - into play-offs unless both these things happen... 1) Plymouth win or draw, 2) Wycombe win.
  • Lose by a bigger margin - into play-offs unless both these things happen... 1) Plymouth win or draw, 2) Wycombe win or draw.

So that’s all clear!

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Without question, though, on Saturday at Morecambe between 12.30 and 2.30 there will be twists and turns and turnarounds and turnabouts.

Sunderland on the unbeaten run that they are, are - dare I say - unlikely to lose, but the prospect of the match ending a draw fills me with dread. It may of course be fine, but an early lead and a couple of goals will certainly calm a few nerves.

The match at Morecambe is Alex Neil’s fifteenth in charge. It feels like a lot more, but I suspect that is because his tenure has been so intense and the stakes in every match so high it feels like he’s been here much longer.

Of course, there is a debate as to whether he will stay this summer. He has made hints that to do so means a conversation with the owners in which there are several areas over which he would want clarity, and I suggest one of those areas is the role played by Kristjaan Speakman and how that could impact the way manner in which Alex Neil works.

He says himself he is pragmatic and ‘old school’ - which is in other words a coach who wants to control the incomings and outgoings, and will not necessarily embrace the model that Sunderland has introduced this season.

Whether that model has worked will be answered to a degree by what happens at Morecambe.

Failure to reach the play-offs and the model will be under intense scrutiny.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Even reaching the play-offs and hopefully the play-off final will not negate the need for that introspection. There are undoubtedly questions to be asked about the template employed by the football club as it seeks to re-establish itself in the Championship and ultimately the Premier League.

What will also be magnified IF Sunderland fail to gain promotion is the sacking of Lee Johnson, but more pertinently the time it then took to appoint Alex Neil.

The defeats by Doncaster Rovers and Cheltenham Town have been costly. There is no doubt about that. Sunderland should have won both and had they done so they would now be vying with Rotherham for an automatic promotion place.

I think it’s fair to argue Lee Johnson’s sacking was, if not inevitable, then not entirely unexpected. He himself admits he saw it coming, but the delay in having a new man lined up straight away was unforgivable.

Johnson’s demise was on the cards for some time, and with that in mind, it’s a logical step to suggest that surely a successor should have been in place straight away. The fact that Alex Neil was available makes the oversight even harder to understand.

Neil demonstrated in his first match in charge at AFC Wimbledon - when he had barely met the players and as he says, called them by the wrong names - what he brings to the table.

His subsequent thirteen matches, albeit peppered with a little luck, such as Michael Ihiekwe’s equaliser, are proof his pragmatism and no-nonsense approach have worked.

Oh, what we would give now to turn back the clock and have him on the touchline for Doncaster and Cheltenham.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alex Neil’s future, like Sunderland’s, remains then unclear.

He refuses to countenance any talk of what he would like to happen. Even talk of the futures of the out-of-contract players is not up for discussion. He is entirely focused on the ‘next game’, and it’s telling how he has not once talked about the area or anything extraneous to the football.

We in the media are fed little.

Even a question about Rotherham post-Cambridge was brushed aside before a begrudging fifteen seconds was offered. “I haven’t thought about them” said Neil, only to admit after the Rotherham game he’d watched five or six videos of them over the previous week!

This is all framed by what is going to happen at Morecambe, and hopefully subsequently in the play-offs.

It’s all academic of course because as I say, Sunderland’s destiny is the Championship - and Exeter City will have to wait another millennium to play them in the League!


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