Ever since our relegation from the Premier League in 2016/2017, we have heard time and time again that ‘turning this huge club around’ would be the pinnacle of each incoming manager’s career, and yet nearly every single one has left us in a worse position than his predecessor.
In recent times, Sunderland’s recent defeat away to Sheffield United, which followed a last-minute concession at home to QPR, would have led to a considerable meltdown, but for many fans, there is a sense of optimism in the air which marks a significant difference from the start of the 2017/2018 season.
During our time in League One, there was a well-worn narrative that our fans were ‘arrogant’ and ‘toxic’ when in actual fact, all we felt we deserved was something better. This didn’t always mean in terms of the results, but in terms of effort, determination and bravery, and for the players to leave everything on the pitch after 95 minutes of hard work.
In Alex Neil, however, we have a manager who is the epitome of Sunderland. The players seem to trust him to the hilt, and I am with them.
When speaking about his time on Wearside in 2019, Simon Grayson highlighted that ‘there were so many underlying problems, that people do not have a clue what was going on’, which included ‘players who didn’t want to be there, who were earning a lot of money, but did not have the drive or the determination to run through a brick wall week in and week out’.
At this moment in time, you would think that he was talking about a different club.
Sunderland AFC is now brimming with young, up-and-coming talent. We have a squad of players who will do anything and everything the manager asks, and will push not only themselves but each other to the brink in order earn the points.
For this, we praised the players and manager after losing by one goal to a potential top six team, after being down to ten men for the majority of the game. Five years ago, our trip to Bramall Lane would have ended in a battering, without a doubt.
Off the pitch, we are also a different beast nowadays.
Instead of being owned by someone who is desperate to sell up and refuses to invest in the playing squad, we have an owner who is happy to spend, as long as it is right for the club. This has led to the use of data in order to recruit players who are on the up, instead of targeting players on a downward trajectory.
There is now a genuine structure in place, and a club hierarchy that understands the scope of their roles and is happy to align their vision with the fans. I believe that we are finally using our resources in the right way, and becoming a genuinely forward-thinking club at the same time.
Admittedly, this has not been without its faults, possibly due to the fact that some members of the hierarchy have not performed in these roles before, but with mistakes fixed and learned from, we are now a world away from Ellis Short and his revolving door of CEOs and directors of football.
Everything I have highlighted above has created the kind of atmosphere that Sunderland fans have craved for over a decade.
There are pathways for players, many reasons to be proud, and it is now a club that we can really get behind. We finally have a manager who can become the guy everyone before him wanted to be, and I for one have never had more belief that we are finally on our way.