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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final

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Super Six: The players who have flourished most under Alex Neil’s management

Alex Neil’s influence on the squad since his arrival has been significant. Philip West looks at six players who have benefited enormously from the Scot’s approach.

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Anthony Patterson

Patterson’s rise to the status of first-choice goalkeeper has been a wonderful story. There is always something special about a homegrown talent making the jersey his own, and even more so when it ends with a promotion.

With an organised and ruthlessly efficient defence in front of him, Patterson has come of age recently, with a succession of fine performances and a command of his penalty area that belies his tender years. His save from Sam Vokes at Wembley was a key moment in the playoff final, as he stood strong and blocked a shot from the Wycombe striker.

He has made a compelling case to be Sunderland’s first-choice goalkeeper for next season, and the most encouraging thing is that he has plenty of room for improvement. How he progresses during the next few years will be something to keep a keen eye on.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Bailey Wright

Certain footballers seem to embody a manager’s philosophy and demeanour. They can strike up a rapport with their boss without much effort, and can quickly establish themselves as one of the club’s on-field generals.

The relationship between Bailey Wright and Alex Neil is proof positive of this. The teak-hard Australian was always a reliable and commanding presence at the back, but since Neil’s arrival, he has raised his game and evolved into a warrior, someone for whom defending remains an art, and goals conceded are a matter of shame.

His partnership with Danny Batth has been key, and despite one or two iffy moments against Wycombe, they have been absolutely outstanding in recent weeks. Their influence has also rubbed off on Dennis Cirkin, who has generally looked much calmer alongside his two veteran teammates.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Corry Evans

As living proof that a handful of underwhelming performances do not define a player’s status at a club, Evans has evolved from an anonymous midfield plodder to a dominant engine room general, and has forced many, myself included, to swallow a large slice of humble pie in the process.

Seemingly inspired by Neil’s down-to-brass-tacks management style, the NI international has bulldozed his way through game after game, keeping things ticking over in midfield and providing a shining example of leadership and professionalism for his teammates.

Now assured of a place in the history books as the only Sunderland captain to win promotion via the playoffs, Evans will likely be one of the key figures next season, as we attempt to ensure Championship survival.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Elliot Embleton

Unlike fellow homegrown talents such as Dan Neil, Embleton has often been something of a conundrum since he became a first-team regular.

By common consensus, he didn’t have the necessary attributes to play as a winger, and with Alex Pritchard solidly established in the number ten position, there were question marks about exactly where Embleton could slot in and how big a role he could play.

After shuffling his pack, Neil solved the problem by utilising Embo as a deep-lying playmaker, giving him the freedom and the space to make things happen in midfield, and it has worked a treat. His passing and vision have been critical recently, and his rampaging run and goal in the playoff final set us on our way.

Embleton is the kind of player who will relish the opportunity to play in the Championship, and it will be fascinating to see how he adapts.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Lynden Gooch

Given that he is the club’s longest-serving player, Gooch’s tearful post-match celebrations on Saturday would’ve moved a heart of stone, and they were rich reward for what has been a sterling effort from the American over the past couple of months. He has often been the subject of criticism over the years, but his love for the club is transparent, and Neil clearly understands that.

Deployed in a more defensive role in recent times, where his energy and work rate can be better utilised, the change of position has worked superbly, as he has found a level of consistency and effectiveness that had previously eluded him. He also uses the ball much more effectively in attack, and has added some genuine variation to his game, to impressive effect.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Federico Maranesi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Patrick Roberts

Roberts’ pedigree was not in doubt before he arrived at the club. The former Manchester City and Celtic attacker had all the talent and potential, but his career had been littered with loan spells and inconsistency. At twenty five, his move to the Stadium of Light felt crucial.

After a slow start, Roberts began to hit his straps, and as the season reached its climax, he started to show exactly why he was so highly-rated.

He has the big game mentality that a Sunderland attacker needs, the confidence to trust in his own ability, and the skill to make things happen. If we can secure him on a longer deal, it will be mutually beneficial: we get a classy player, and he in turn can find a football home, somewhere where he can enjoy regular game time and become a key member of the team.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

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