“Go out there, prove to the fans that you’ve got the heart for the fight, and show Alex Neil how wrong he was to abandon ship and walk out on this football club.”
Perhaps they weren't the exact words of the temporary coaching team tasked with steering Sunderland through Saturday’s encounter against Norwich City, but after a performance that reaffirmed a lot of what we already suspected, the departure of our Scottish former hero-turned-villain might just have provided the players with the extra motivation they needed.
After a frankly baffling and bruising twenty four hours, the walk to the Stadium of Light on Saturday morning, ahead of what should’ve been a celebratory occasion, was a curious one.
Where there should’ve been optimism there was unease and confusion as the drawn-out departure of Neil for Stoke, eventually confirmed on Sunday night, stretched into a second day. The fact that a column in the matchday programme was from a head coach who had already cleared his desk merely added to the surreal feeling.
However, as ‘Ready to Go’ echoed around the stadium and the players lined up ahead of kickoff, the atmosphere was one of defiance, pride, and resilience. The fans were buoyant, and suddenly it felt as though this wasn’t going to be the comedown it might have been.
Our performance in defeat against a very good Canaries side (for whom Josh Sargent looks to be a real gem of a player) was not that of a team who had downed tools or were fearful about what the future might bring. Neil had instilled a fearsome level of competitiveness in his players, and thankfully, it hadn't disappeared along with him.
The likes of Corry Evans, Ross Stewart and Luke O’Nien stood tall, and had we taken our chances, particularly in the first half, the Lads really would’ve delivered the ultimate two-fingered gesture to their former boss.
As it was, growing fatigue from the sixty minute mark and a lack of momentum-changing replacements compared to that of Norwich ultimately cost us, but again, the competitiveness was there.
Naturally, the rumour mill has been spinning at mach three in recent days, but the exact circumstances surrounding Neil’s wretchedly-timed departure are known only by himself and Kristjaan Speakman, despite the two buzzwords being ‘money’ and ‘backing’.
The club’s sporting director did hint at efforts to retain Neil’s services in a pre-match interview on Saturday, but for those who remain of the view that Speakman is too much ego and not enough common sense, it will have done little to dissuade them.
The argument about ‘not being backed’ is open to interpretation, and is one of a manager’s stock phrases when departing a club, along with ‘mutual consent’ and ‘it’s a great challenge at [INSERT CLUB NAME HERE]’. If he never wanted to be viewed as anything more than a promotion-winning hired gun, he has succeeded, but it does leave a sour taste regardless.
Throughout the match, it was interesting to hear refrains of a no-nonsense anti-Neil chant ringing out from the hordes in the Roker End, and the general mood of defiance was directed at him, and not towards the club hierarchy. In times of adversity, our fans come together more often than not, and here, the sense of unity was exceptionally strong.
Nevertheless, this was all a far cry from those glorious nights at the Stadium of Light and Hillsborough in May, as well as the unforgettable sights and sounds of the Wembley playoff final, when after switching his tailored suit for the tracksuit, Neil ended our League One purgatory and elevated Sunderland back to the second tier. He was a hero then, but football changes rapidly, and nowhere more so than at Sunderland.
It may seem churlish, if not downright petty, to vilify a man who a week ago could do no wrong, and was routinely being hailed as the perfect fit for the job, but perhaps that is exactly why Neil’s status among the red and white faithful is now diminished.
We backed him and we believed in him, and now that he has opted to swap Wearside for the Potteries, there is a sense of bitterness and unfinished business.
Still, everyone will now move on, and whoever the next boss is, they will arrive at Sunderland with much in their favour and a fanbase willing to swing behind them as we seek to solidify our Championship status.
So, Neil has gone, but Sunderland AFC will doubtless continue to thrive and move forward.
The club does not orbit around one man, and as the players showed emphatically on Saturday, this team has the potential to compete regardless of who their leader is. In the face of adversity, their most admirable qualities shone through, which spoke volumes about their character and professional pride.