In Roy Keane’s superb first autobiography (‘Keane’, 2002), he recalls some advice that was given to him during his youth team days for Rockmount FC in Ireland.
In this particular section of the book, the then Manchester United midfielder was discussing the importance of self-motivation and selflessness as essential qualities for any successful player to possess.
According to the man himself, Keane’s coaches had imbued him with the mindset of ‘regardless of how much talent you possess, if you take the field with the wrong attitude, you’ll lose’. As his career unfolded, his belief in that creed clearly never wavered, and from the end of his playing career to his managerial posts, he never lost that drive, hunger, and desire to improve.
The reason I refer to that particular quote is simple: there are some very encouraging signs emanating from Alex Neil’s team right now, signs that parallel Keane’s approach to the game and the attitude he embodied.
After five months under Neil’s stewardship, there is a real sense that as a result of much painstaking work on the training ground, the attitude of Sunderland’s players is continuing to evolve, and that they are finally becoming the team we always hoped they would- physically resilient, ruthlessly focused, and able to successfully manage games even when the momentum is going against them.
Of course, we saw signs of this during the early months of Neil’s spell, and particularly during the end-of-season run that culminated in promotion, perhaps embodied by the image of a bloodied Bailey Wright in the aftermath of the victory over Sheffield Wednesday.
He’d emptied the tank in the pursuit of the win, and was willing to do whatever it took in order to achieve it. It was reminiscent of the old-school attitude demonstrated by Sunderland players of years gone by.
If under Lee Johnson, we were a team of nice guys who lacked ruthlessness and were often cowed by the fear of failure, we have now become a streetwise, battle-hardened outfit for whom the past holds no burden- and the playoff final victory over Wycombe merely confirmed that.
In the wake of Sunderland’s feisty midweek game against Roma, my Roker Report colleague Gavin Henderson brought up another Keane reference, this time from a recent documentary.
In his own words, during the 2006/2007 season, we would train exactly as we played: full-blooded, holding nothing back, and with total commitment.
This meant that the danger of being undercooked ahead of key matches was avoided, and as our run from January to May 2007 demonstrated, it also instilled a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude that ultimately swept the club to promotion.
If the same approach is being taken now, that is a hugely positive development, and Saturday’s game against Dundee offered further proof that it is. We were aggressive in our pressing, relentless in our work both on and off the ball, and we played the game at a tempo that was higher than usual in such a situation.
In terms of their ethos, demeanour and profile, Keane and Neil are both very similar.
Both brooked no nonsense (particularly from the media, in Neil’s case), and both men are fully invested in the club and what it means to the people of the city. Within weeks of his arrival, Neil recognised very quickly that Sunderland fans will always appreciate honesty from their manager, as well as honest performances from the team.
Indeed, we might not have secured the services of Keane in January, but would anyone argue that Neil hasn’t shown himself to be a superior choice? He might not have provided the rocket-fuelled instant lift in morale that the Irishman may have, but having delivered promotion, morale eventually went through the roof regardless.
If Sunderland are to compete and make more than a fleeting impact next season, there can be no half-measures and no slacking, either in training or during matches, and based on the current feeling around the club, we have little to worry about.
We certainly possess the talent and skill in our ranks to take the fight to opposing teams, but in players such as Wright, Luke O’Nien, Corry Evans and Lynden Gooch, we also have a plentiful supply of the more organic qualities that any successful team needs. These players are showing increasingly impressive leadership credentials, and their younger teammates will certainly be able to feed off that.
There will be times during the upcoming Championship campaign where things don’t go our way; when we have to weather periods of intense pressure and do the hard yards in order to grind out results. Under Neil, I am supremely confident that we have what it takes to do it.
With team spirit clearly as strong as it has been for a while, many players on an upward trajectory, and a manager who fits the club perfectly, the foundations are looking stronger as the weeks go by. Neil believes in the players, the players believe in him, and as fans, we can have full belief in both of them.