It’s amazing to think it was only Thursday morning when Michael O’Neill was sacked as manager of Stoke City.
At the time, the events seemed to move in slow motion, when in hindsight they moved at breakneck speed, because by Thursday evening, news was beginning to spread that Alex Neil was installed as favourites with the bookies to jump ship for a move to Staffordshire.
It just didn’t make sense. It was shrugged it off as one of those quirks of the ‘new manager’ market where one bet gets the bookmakers running scared and they slash the odds.
Overnight, I had no worries about us losing our manager.
Late Friday morning, however, it was announced that Alex Neil had been granted permission to speak to the Potters, which is the point where for most of us, this thing started to become very real.
I guess it was following this announcement we thought there was only one outcome - Alex Neil would no longer be manager of Sunderland A.F.C.
He wasn’t speaking to Stoke out of pure courtesy to then bounce back into our dugout as if nothing had happened, if he chose to speak to them, then that was that.
This is also the point when a multitude of questions regarding the move began to be answered by rumours and conjecture in the vast vacuum created by a club who weren’t in a position to comment on the matter.
We know we’re biased, all football fans are, but pundits were tripping over their sentence structures to avoid explicitly asking why someone would make the move from Sunderland to Stoke without getting offside with the frequent visitors to the bet365 stadium.
In short, it wasn’t just us as Sunderland fans who were confused about what was unfolding.
It’s out of this bewilderment where people go hunting for a reason why, because at some point this will all surely make sense, right?
When you consider it was only around twenty-four hours between O’Neill leaving Stoke and Alex Neil getting the go-ahead to speak to them, and then subsequently just over forty-eight hours until he rocked up at Ewood Park, it’s pretty safe to assume that talks had been going on between Stoke and the Sunderland manager well before they parted company with their manager.
The fact is that Alex Neil wanted to leave the club.
For that to be the case, things simply weren’t right behind the scenes. Which is a bizarre thing to have confirmed to us only four weeks after the two parties announced that the manager had signed a new contract that everyone was happy with, because if he wasn’t happy with those terms then why agree to them?
Neil had been out of a job for almost a year after leaving Preston when he became our manager back in February, and the fantastic job in the eighteen games he took charge of last season has raised his stock back to almost the heights of his early days at Norwich City.
As much as we’d all have loved Alex Neil to have remained our manager for a very long time and carry on the good work, from the club’s point of view, when it comes to the business of contracts, I’d imagine they’d take into account that he has been in charge for only twenty-four competitive games.
Now, I have no idea where his pay was on the scale of Championship managers in terms of his Sunderland deal, but I’d imagine that it reflected his time at the club and our status as a newly promoted club. I’d also hazard a guess that Stoke City have probably just made Neil one of the best paid managers in the division.
Kristjaan Speakman stated on Sky before kick-off that a new offer was made to Neil in an attempt to get him to stay, but what do you throw at someone who appears to have one foot out of the door?
Would people have been happy if it was then announced we’d made him the best paid manager outside of the Premier League and he signed a six-year contract on that wage?
What if our form took a nose-dive and Neil wasn’t the flavour of the month? We’d then need to pay him up for his brand spanking new deal if we decided to go in a different direction.
We may never know the ins and outs of this thing, but at the heart of it there’s the club to think of and protect. We’ve been there before when managers have flattered to deceive, and I’m not describing Alex Neil in this way, but the point is our outlook on managers can change, and we end up paying them off and ripping up the plan time after time.
It is reassuring that we have just lost a manager to another club - for the first time since 1978 which is why it probably feels worse - and I can still see what the long term plan for the club is.
Kristjaan Speakman has been in no way perfect since he joined the club, he has made mistakes along the way, but the plain fact is that he was appointed on the 4th December 2020, the day before a home defeat to Wigan Athletic. If you take a look at the side that played that day and compare it to the young squad that we see taking to the pitch this season, a few months shy of two years later, the difference is night and day.
We’re getting something right, which Alex Neil was a major part of, and it could be argued Lee Johnson played his small part, but if this is the way the club is going to function and structure itself, then a revolving door in the managers office might be something we need to get used to.
It’s natural to be pissed off and ask why this has turned out the way it has - Alex Neil was popular, he took us out of League One when seemingly nobody else could, which results in people wanting to point the finger… but it’s happened now and we move on.
Saturday showed we have a talented group of young players putting a shift in, it showed the fans are right behind them and it showed the circus stops for nobody - and before we know it, we’ll be talking about the replacement for the replacement. Hopefully that will be a few years from now - I can’t be arsed with another fallout for a while.