Ahead of Sunderland’s trip to AFC Wimbledon in February, when we were still without a head coach, a grainy photograph of Alex Neil emerged on social media. It showed him on the platform at Durham railway station, seemingly checking some paperwork, as speculation as to when the decision would finally be made was reaching fever pitch.
Shortly thereafter, he was officially unveiled as Lee Johnson’s replacement, after a recruitment process that had been, at best, drawn out, and at worst, downright amateurish.
Whether the timing of the announcement had an effect on the players’ build-up, as we drew 1-1 at Plough Lane, nobody knows, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.
When Johnson left the club after the Bolton debacle, it threw our entire season into a state of flux. Granted, spirits were high after Jermain Defoe’s return, but the gap between Johnson’s departure and Neil’s appointment was filled with two games that we lost in shambolic fashion, under the interim control of Michael Proctor and Mike Dodds.
Taking all of that into account, it was a blessed relief when Neil was finally confirmed as the new man in charge.
He came with solid credentials and a reputation for instilling some grit into the teams he had coached, and seemed to be a good fit, despite the fact that Roy Keane had been linked with the job.
Within days of Neil’s arrival, it was abundantly clear that he was a man on a mission and that fripperies were not part of his approach.
Even after a handful of post-match interviews and press conferences, Lee Johnson’s more philosophical approach was eschewed for Neil’s straight-talking, abrasive means of communication that was in complete contrast to his predecessor.
That approach has endured, and there is something similar to Mick McCarthy in the way that Neil handles his media responsibilities. Inane questions are brushed aside, and banality is not brooked. That is certainly an admirable approach, and demonstrates an urgency that has certainly filtered into the playing squad.
Results-wise, Neil has delivered with aplomb.
A solitary defeat at home to MK Dons is the only loss we have suffered on his watch, and although there have been a handful of frustrating results, not least a dismal home draw against Burton, it has largely been very impressive.
The highlights, for me, were a superb 0-3 victory over eventual champions Wigan, and the recent 5-1 demolition of Cambridge, during which we displayed all of the defensive nous of Neil’s system, coupled with the attacking flair that had been seen under Johnson.
Under Neil, we look physically fitter, much more resilient, and capable of controlling games to a far greater degree. There have been some scares, not least at home against Shrewsbury, and it is a shame to see Dan Neil only being used in cameo roles, but overall, the improvements in many areas have been significant.
Neil deserves praise for steering the club into the playoffs with a squad of players that isn’t really ‘his’, and the way he has dealt with issues such as Defoe’s abrupt retirement was further proof of his businesslike attitude. Don’t want to be at the club? Fine. You leave, we’ll move on and adapt as necessary.
Another positive is that many individual players have improved significantly under Neil. The likes of Anthony Patterson, Danny Batth, and Corry Evans are now key cogs in the machine, and Evans in particular has evolved into the captain that everyone hoped he would be.
A point that I do find fascinating is that Neil possesses roughly the same amount of charisma and panache as the last Scot to occupy the home dugout at the Stadium of Light -the much-maligned Jack Ross - yet he is held in far greater esteem by the fans, and is very rarely accused of being ‘dour’.
If he delivers promotion, he’ll doubtless be elevated to hero status on Wearside, and even if he doesn’t, there seems to be a strong appetite to retain him for next season.
It is sheer ill fortune that he has tried to mount a promotion bid in the most open League One season for a while, but his dogged determination to oversee positive results has kept us in the mix since he arrived.
With an eye on the playoffs, Neil certainly won’t fear the challenge of Sheffield Wednesday, and as I wrote when he was first appointed, I have a strong belief that, during the end-of-season shootout, we will fare very well under his management.
He has the ability to transfer pressure from his players onto his own shoulders, and he has clearly empowered his players with responsibility and the ability to solve problems for themselves. The net result is that we have a very good chance of finally ending the playoff curse and escaping this division at the fourth time of asking.
In such a short space of time, Neil’s impact has been significant. He is the right man at the right time, and there is every reason to believe he can succeed where Ross and Johnson ultimately failed.