During our spell in League One, it’s fair to say that many of Sunderland’s players didn’t look thrilled to be living the dreams of every supporter, of donning the red and white stripes, running down the tunnel and onto the pitch to represent our club and hopefully playing their part in a rebirth.
During that time, there were too many instances of players appearing to be burdened by the weight of expectation to the point where they retreated into their shells and became totally ineffectual. Many of them were solid pros and honest characters who simply found it all-consuming.
To say the least, it was often uncomfortable to watch and it had a hugely damaging impact on the perception of the club.
I’m convinced that until very recently, the external view was that Sunderland was a place where young players’ careers would be hindered and their development stifled.
In 2023 however, things are different, and enormously for the better.
Escaping the quagmire of League One certainly had a liberating effect, and since the no-nonsense style of Alex Neil was replaced by the fatherly approach of Tony Mowbray, we’ve seen a noticeable difference in the mindset adopted by the players, both at home and away.
Playing for Sunderland should be a joy and a challenge to be relished.
Yes, it takes a strong mind and a thick skin to do so, but players with those attributes will always find their way into the affections of the supporters, and this is typified by Dan Neil.
Neil’s ability has never been in doubt and since his emergence at the start of 2021/2022, he’s shown flashes of prodigious talent and an impressive range of passing, as well as chipping in with a smattering of important goals.
However, this season had often been more of a struggle for Neil, particularly as winter set in, but what did Mowbray do? He didn’t give up on the young midfielder. Instead, he showed admirable faith, accepted that rough spells of form were par for the course, and offered his full backing.
The result is that Neil has now developed into a more rounded midfielder and is playing with confidence and real purpose.
The combination of impressive mental strength from the player and unshakeable belief from his head coach have had a huge impact, and he looks to be enjoying his football once again.
With such a young average squad age comes an acceptance that these lads will experience ups and downs, but the tone set by Mowbray- whose shoulders are broad enough to shoulder criticism without putting his players into the firing line- allows for that without damage being inflicted.
He takes the heat off the players, creates a space in which they can perform, doesn’t allow individual mistakes or losses to be magnified into calamities, and calmly deals with any fallout if things don’t go to plan.
It’s clearly a major part of why he was brought to the club, and any perceptions of him being a ‘football dinosaur’ have thankfully been consigned to the dustbin.
Other players within the squad have certainly reaped the rewards of this approach- among them Trai Hume and Neil’s midfield partner Edouard Michut, and someone else who’ll undoubtedly benefit from it is Jack Clarke.
After scoring a superb goal against Fulham, he found Saturday’s encounter with Millwall more of a struggle, but in a different kind of game in a tough environment, perhaps it wasn’t surprising and Mowbray will know that more than anyone.
Clarke will come good once more. His talent is obvious and even if he’s rested for Wednesday’s FA Cup replay against Fulham, the visit of Reading on Saturday could easily be a game in which he shines.
To take such a young, talented and exciting group of players into the Championship was not an easy task, but it’s testament to the hard work that’s been undertaken, and the cultural shift at the club, that these lads are thriving in a Sunderland shirt.
We’re now a club where young players can progress and find real joy in their football, and that’s such a welcome change after seeing the red and white stripes weigh so heavily on those who preceded them.