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Sunderland and Alex Neil - Was it all just a marriage of convenience?

It seems like it was, and in truth, it worked out for both of us.

Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

When all’s said and done, it seems like it was a marriage of convenience. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cast your mind back to early February, when Alex Neil – who’d at that point been out of work for 11 months after being sacked by Preston – was appointed Sunderland head coach.

We’d been turned down by Roy Keane, and Grant McCann, too, and turned to Neil in desperation.

From Neil’s perspective, he knew he hadn’t been the club’s first choice, and he didn’t really want to work in League One, either.

But needs must. Offers from the Championship hadn’t flooded in, and he needed to get back into the game before he quickly became one of those ‘former managers’.

He’s not a ‘head coach’, he’s most certainly a ‘manager’ (I noted with interest that he’s Stoke’s manager now), but he made compromises to get back in the game; in the shop window.

Whether either side saw it as a long-term arrangement at the outset, who knows? The 12-month rolling contract, complete with clauses that enabled him to speak to other clubs should they make an approach, suggests not.

AFC Wimbledon v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - The Cherry Red Records Stadium
Was Neil ever really think long term?
Photo by Jacques Feeney/PA Images via Getty Images

Of course, things change, and Neil’s spell in charge couldn’t have gone any better for either party. We go up, finally. He gets another promotion on his CV. Win/win.

His stock rose considerably, we move up a level.

In terms of negotiating his future, however, his hand was strengthened, ours weakened, and you could tell from his interviews over recent weeks he was becoming a bit frustrated with the club’s transfer policy.

As supporters, the manager – or head coach – of our football club is a hugely important role. And Alex Neil seemed ideal for it. He was ideal for it, from the outside at least.

Inside the club, however, it may have been different. Again, there are only a few people who genuinely know what happened.

However, from the outside looking in, there was friction between what Neil wanted and what the club wanted.

The club seems to have a plan, for the first time in a number of years. We’re clearly prioritising younger players to develop and sell them on. We’re clearly reducing the dependency the manager to make all of the decisions – wisely, given the revolving door of managers coming in, signing their own players, and leaving the next incumbent with a Frankenstein of a squad to sort out.

And the fact is, that approach is working. Since sporting director Kristjaan Speakman was appointed, our squad has improved significantly – I don’t think anyone could argue that point.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference
Will it be third time lucky for Kristjaan Speakman?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So, if – and it’s a big if – Neil wanted more control, to veer away from the club’s strategy and bring in players who didn’t fit the mould, the club have probably done the right thing in not agreeing to those terms.

It’s pure speculation, of course. He might have wanted an extra £5k a week, and if that was the case, then we’d have been better off giving it to him. But that may have just been a band-aid solution, and something would have cropped up again in a week, a month, or a year.

It could have been a demand for significantly more – which seems more likely, given the contract Stoke have seemingly given to him – and in which case the club was left on the verge of repeating Ellis Short’s mistakes, by throwing money at problems.

Whatever it was, the speed at which things happened last week suggests it wasn’t just down to a ‘small’ wage rise, though. It was something else, something deeper, something that couldn’t be rectified.

Could it have been location? Maybe. He didn’t move to the area, and his family’s 90 minutes away from Stoke. That’s commutable, and Neil did comment after the play-off semi at Sheff Wed about not seeing his kids for a while.

It’s also apparent he’s been on Stoke’s radar for a while – and vice versa – and it may have been a question of when, not if.

There’s been the media line over the past couple of days about him not being backed in the transfer market, which is puzzling – but also suggests this was about him having more control over the transfer strategy (a strategy that hasn’t changed since his arrival, by the way) than anything else.

Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship
“I wasnae backed” Really, Alex?
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

He may perceive himself as not being backed in the market, but he was just one part of the group buying players. Over the past 18 months or so, our transfer record has been good – very good, in fact – so if Neil felt he couldn’t achieve something with this group of players, with more incomings due this week, as part of a team that had far more successes than failures in the transfer market, then that probably says more about him than us.

Yes, we need strengthening, yes we need reinforcements, but everyone knows that, surely.

It’s undoubtedly a disappointing way to end his short tenure here. I felt with him in charge, we were heading in the right direction – and quickly.

But, ultimately, he decided to walk away from everything he had here.

He decided he didn’t want to be here.

He decided Stoke are a better bet than us.

And, marriage of convenience or not, if one party doesn’t genuinely want to be there, you’ll never change their mind in the long term. Short term, maybe something can be wallpapered over. But those cracks are never truly gone, and ultimately it’ll never work.

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