As we enter the final stages of the 2022/2023 season, it’s time for the groundwork to be laid for the summer and beyond, as we start to look ahead to 2023/2024 and what will hopefully be another season of even greater progress at Sunderland.
This summer’s window is sure to be a pivotal one as we seek to bolster the squad and add depth and quality in key areas, with the aim of ensuring that we’ve got a strong chance of building on this season’s efforts, ideally with a tilt at the top six.
With no game this weekend and the agenda currently being dominated by discussions around season ticket renewals and what kind of players we should be targeting, it was a nice surprise when on Tuesday night, the club announced that Dan Neil had signed a new contract, extending his stay on Wearside until 2026.
It’s always great to see the club being proactive in securing the futures of its key assets, and Neil certainly fits into that bracket as a homegrown player whose pathway to the first team was laid at academy level and whose progress over the past two years has been notable.
Indeed, after signing his new contract, he expressed his continued pride at representing Sunderland and vowed to continue to work to help us get back to the Premier League.
Personally, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the young midfielder fully deserves a new deal. He’s an integral member of our side, his attitude always comes across as exceptional and he clearly loves the club and the fans for whom he plays.
During our first Championship campaign for four years, Neil, along with many of his young teammates, has acquitted himself impressively and has seldom looked out of his depth at this level.
Backed steadfastly by Tony Mowbray even through periodic dips in form, he’s looked rejuvenated in recent weeks after some tough experiences and poor results. His midfield partnership with Edouard Michut also looks to be improving all the time, with a real chemistry and on-field understanding developing between them.
If we exercise our option to turn Michut’s loan move from Paris Saint-Germain into a permanent transfer this summer, our midfield will look very exciting indeed, not least when you factor in the likes of Pierre Ekwah and Abdoullah Ba, both of whom will doubtless be eager to make an even bigger impression next season.
The exciting thing about Neil is that he’s by no means the finished article and still has some way to go to fully unlock his potential - and why shouldn’t that be at Sunderland?
After all, much has been made in recent times about the possibility of ‘buying low and selling high’, but there could easily be exceptions to that rule, and I’ve got no doubt that Neil could be part of a promotion-winning Sunderland team.
His eye for a pass and willingness to drive forward from midfield have been recognised for some time and this season, he’s added a more physical side to his game along with greater defensive work rate, too.
The only real weakness in his armoury is his tendency to get caught in possession and to give the ball away cheaply from time to time. That was something for which he paid a heavy price with a costly red card during our visit to Bramall Lane, but it can certainly be improved with time, good coaching, and patience.
There’s an ongoing and justified clamour for Ross Stewart to sign a new contract but ensuring that we retain the services of a player like Neil is absolutely essential, too.
If there’s one component that’s at the very heart of Sunderland’s new ethos, it’s that talented young footballers will be given opportunities to impress if they show the right qualities, and a willingness to listen, learn, and apply themselves every day.
It was clearly a major part of why Mowbray was brought to the club last year, and I get a sense that there’s a real bond between Neil and his head coach.
He’s certainly demonstrated the qualities that the club is looking for in a young player, and it’s great that we’re going to have the opportunity to cheer for one of our own as he continues to grow, evolve as a player, and contribute to what will hopefully be a successful new era at the Stadium of Light.