So, that’s it, then. Nobody wanted to believe it (least of all this bombastic, ‘non-story’ tweeting idiot), but it is true. From the bookies’ odds on Thursday, to a cancelled press conference on Friday, and now the final act of a frankly absurd twenty four hours.
The Alex Neil/Sunderland collaboration, a partnership that burned brightly but all too briefly, has ended after less than seven months, a mere two league defeats, one promotion, and amid a whole host of unanswered questions and a great deal of rancour and dejection on social media.
It was a somewhat perverse twist of fate that his final game in charge was against his new employer, a defeat that ended the tenure of Michael O’Neill and left the door open for the Scot to replace him.
Last Saturday’s victory offered definitive proof that under the former Norwich boss, we possess the heart and the resilience to see out tough games. The question now is whether those qualities will disappear, and whether the trajectory of our season takes a downturn in the aftermath.
On one level, it’s incredibly difficult not to feel a primal sense of anger at the way in which Neil and Sunderland have parted ways.
The club has built up an extraordinary amount of goodwill and optimism since May’s playoff final, and now that Neil is bidding farewell to Wearside, the danger is that it begins to drain away at an alarming rate.
Of course, we may bring in an equal or superior successor and the ramifications may not be as severe as they might have been, but for now, the club finds itself at a crossroads yet again.
Another issue is the timing of his departure.
With a league game against Norwich tomorrow, and less than a week of the transfer window left, everything has been thrown into a state of flux.
What must Jewison Bennette be thinking, having moved from Costa Rica only to find himself on the payroll of a managerless club five minutes after his arrival? How will the likes of Dennis Cirkin and Jack Clarke, players who were thriving under Neil, be feeling? The timing is utterly wretched, and threatens to undermine what has been an excellent start to the season.
It seems peculiar, and slightly surreal, to be analysing Neil’s Sunderland ‘legacy’ after a mere 196 days in the dugout, but his impact has been significant, and that cannot be forgotten.
This was a man who enjoyed a greater level of support from the fans, and was arguably more suited to the job, than any boss since Sam Allardyce.
Upon his arrival, he began to turn a talented-but-fragile group of players into a cohesive unit, and had fostered a team spirit that was stronger than we had seen in years.
He was abrasive enough to deal with the media, he was tactically shrewd enough to steer the team through the playoffs and back to the Championship, and he had the confidence and the self-belief to ensure the demands of the job would not engulf him.
In addition, he oversaw a resurgence in form from many of the club’s players. He helped Cirkin become a reliable presence in defence; he backed Anthony Patterson as his number one goalkeeper, and he aided Ross Stewart’s continued rise to the status of a priceless player.
To that end, switching to Stoke at this stage of the season is more than a little baffling.
Does he see greater potential in the Potters than in Sunderland? That seems very idealistic, given the trajectories that the respective clubs seem to be on. In addition, they do not currently have a great deal of momentum behind them, whereas we do, although that is likely to be checked now.
In the aftermath of this whole messy affair, the finger of blame will likely be pointed at Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman for not ‘giving Neil what he wanted’, but that feels like too simplistic a view.
Neil is very much a manager of the old school, and whether he could adapt to the club’s new framework was always an intriguing question, particularly during the summer as we aimed to bring the squad up to Championship level.
The much-discussed issue of the rolling contract is intriguing, too.
If Neil was happy with it and was content to work on such a deal, surely that needed to be respected. In an ideal world, a two or three-year contract would’ve been thrashed out and signed, but only those in the boardroom know what actually went on.
On the pitch, the current first team squad, hopefully to be augmented with some additional signings, is talented and certainly strong enough to compete for a solid league position in 2022/2023.
Clearly, the club’s new ethos is to scour the globe for young, up-and-coming players, give them a chance, and potentially sell them for a sizeable profit further down the line.
After years of scattergun recruitment and financial wastage, that is exciting, but perhaps it jarred with Neil’s vision for the club. He clearly saw the potential of Sunderland and was eager to unlock it, but maybe a disagreement on the best way of doing that has led to his departure.
One thing is now absolutely certain: a high-class head coach is needed, and the pressure will be on to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The appointment also needs to be made as swiftly as possible.
In theory, we ought to be a more attractive proposition for would-be bosses than we were during the League One years, but the stumbling blocks regarding the infrastructure and recruitment policy remain. Could they perhaps utilise Dreyfus’ European connections and look abroad for a new head coach, or will they go for another no-nonsense figure in the Neil mould?
With the right man at the helm, this season could easily represent a more-than-satisfactory return to the Championship, but in the six years since Allardyce left, our track record in this department is less than stellar.
There have been a multitude of messy and bitter departures from this club over the years, from Darren Bent to Sam Allardyce, but this feels like the most thunderous kick in the gut yet.
Of course, hope for a positive season is not lost, but it is another brutal setback at a time when everything seemed to be looking so much more positive.