As a player, Dan Neil is a bit like Marmite- some love him and others aren’t so keen.
People’s opinions have varied over the course of his first team career, but on Saturday, the midfielder etched his name into the Sunderland history books with a calm and composed finish.
His equaliser was our 7,500th league goal, a significant milestone for a player who knows exactly what the club means.
Neil’s progression to becoming a first team regular began last season when Lee Johnson fielded the Academy of Light graduate as a left-back during our opening League One match against Wigan Athletic, and from there, he never looked back.
Eventually, Johnson altered Neil’s role to that of a central midfielder alongside Corry Evans, before a change of head coach limited his minutes towards the end of 2021/2022, but the passion he showed on the Wembley turf was obvious.
Neil’s importance during last season’s promotion was undoubted: he found his place within the starting eleven and created a dominant partnership with Evans in the centre of the park.
That same partnership has continued in the Championship, and during the past couple of months, people’s perceptions of him have changed.
His growing maturity has turned him into a professional figure, and his personality is almost an embodiment of Sunderland’s identity at the moment: a young player making a positive impact in the second tier.
Yes, he’ll have bad games, and occasions where the opposition midfield is just too powerful, but what can’t be faulted is his dedication to the club and the badge.
With that in mind, having his name next to our 7,500th league goal is a major feat for the midfielder and his family – all of whom are from Sunderland stock.
On the day, of course, it wasn’t the main headline from the game, as a red card proved decisive during our first defeat in six, but if we’d managed to build on Neil’s 65th minute goal, it would’ve been a different story.
Despite the outcome on a disappointing afternoon, he was one of the leading lights, as his pressing from midfield and his pursuit on the attack in the second half proved decisive.
Over the festive period, Neil has taken on a greater level of responsibility and has shown Tony Mowbray why he should be one of the first names on the team sheet.
Consistency was one of the elements of his game that was missing last season and it’s sometimes been the case during 2022/2023, but it finally seems like he’s maintaining a similar level of performance – gritty displays with real quality in both boxes.
Just like any player, fans will always have different opinions on Neil, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another current Sunderland player who knows what it means to play for this historic club, and he’s certainly stamped his name into our long and proud history.