Sunderland’s start to the 2022-23 season back in the EFL Championship was a bright one. After drawing with Coventry at the Stadium of Light, Alex Neil’s men put in a fantastic performance to grab all three points at Ashton Gate against Bristol City.
On this day in 2022, Sunderland were knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. Neil named a highly changed line-up for the game citing rest to the players who put in a huge shift in the first two games.
In truth, Sunderland were very poor in the game creating very little chances throughout with winger Jack Diamond on his own up front.
A wonder strike from Dennis Adenrian set Wednesday up for a win in a game where they created the better chances throughout.
Despite the defeat, the most interesting/worrying thing to come out of the game was how frustrated Neil seemed to be with the lack of progress the club were making in the transfer market.
For much of the summer, these tensions seemed to be simmering away in the background. Neil was looking to recruit players he knew - ones who knew the league and could provide some experience to the team.
The club's approach was different to his and this seemed to be causing tension within the club. Whilst Ellis Simms, Dan Ballard and Aji Alese came through the door, these players appeared to be purchased by the club more so than Alex Neil.
With niggly remarks in press conferences becoming more apparent, it was clear not all was well - and after this game, it appeared that Neil was having another bite when lamenting the lack of options he had in different positions.
I’ve got Jack Diamond who is a wide player playing centre forward, I’ve got Harrison Sohna who is a midfielder playing left wing-back. I just felt with the physical output we’ve put in the last two league games, I didn’t want to expose them. We’ve got a taxing schedule coming up.
We know we can move the ball better. I’ve got standards and an expectancy of where I think we should be, but I think there were mitigating factors for the players we had out there.
When we’re playing, Jack is up there on his own so we lacked a threat. You’re then retaining the ball without really going anywhere, you’ve got a full back playing one of the wing back roles and a midfielder in the other. It’s tough for those lads and then the rest of the time.
It appeared clear after this game that Neil simply wasn’t happy with the progress the club were making on transfers around this time.
As the weeks went on - and the deadline day became closer and closer, it was clear that the club’s and Neil’s approach was chalk and cheese.
Six days later, in the manager’s press conference before the Sheffield United game, Neil was even more animated and vigorous in expressing his mounting unease at the current impasse.
I can’t knock on the door anymore – there’s probably no door there anymore because I’ve pretty much bust it down. Listen, we need to get reinforcements in, and we’re aware of that.
It’s been an ongoing discussion, it’s not as though it’s something we’re just talking about now. I’ve been saying the same thing every press conference, it’s not as though anything has significantly shifted just now. What does significantly shift is that we’ve lost a key player for a length of time, which makes our job doubly difficult because now we’re lighter in that area where we had strength.
We need a bit of help. We need more players in to give us a hand. At the moment, we’ve got key positions that if we get injuries in, we’re light to the point where, in some positions, we’ve arguably got no one to take their place. That’s difficult.
All the frailties that everyone sees, or the areas where they might think, ‘We need strengthening there’, I can assure everybody that I’ve seen it long before anybody else. I see it every day. I know exactly where we are and I know exactly what we need to do, but it’s not easy getting it done. It’s difficult because that’s where we are.
With the visible frustration apparent to everyone, it was no surprise to see Neil depart less than two weeks later from this game.
With Stoke City firing their manager Michael O’Neill after only five games, Neil grasped the opportunity to take over a club that were likely to give him more say on transfers.
With Sunderland having a very fruitful season after appointing Tony Mowbray and Neil increasing his bank balance, it appeared everyone was happy with how it all turned out in the end!