In the wake of Saturday’s victory over Rotherham, Dan Neil was among the many Sunderland players to gain plaudits for their contributions towards a much-needed win.
Although Jobe was rightly at the centre of attention after the game, Neil was equally effective in midfield- hustling, harrying, and keeping things ticking over efficiently.
The raw statistics of his performance were impressive and his ‘heat map’ showed just how much of a shift he’d put in, but equally, if not slightly more impressive, was the level of control he displayed, the calmness he exuded and the authority with which he went about his business.
As a member of a squad that’s comprised of plenty of exciting youngsters and a smattering of older heads, Neil is something of a paradox.
Young in age but with plenty of senior games under his belt, he’s neither a callow, wide-eyed prospect nor a wily veteran, but without question, he’s a supremely talented and ever-improving red and white stalwart.
The same is true of Anthony Patterson who, like Neil, has often copped some flak during his Sunderland career, but has always kept his head up, taken any errors in his stride, and not allowed the criticism to derail his progress.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s game, I found myself asking whether or not we sometimes give our homegrown players a rawer deal than those we sign from elsewhere. And if we do, why is that?
Lynden Gooch, for example, is a long-serving player who graduated from the academy (and an adopted Mackem to boot) but he was often a favourite target for criticism during the League One years as his performances sometimes fluctuated and he struggled to solidify his position in the team.
Nowadays, though, he’s won a place in the hearts of the fans and if a protracted move to QPR materialises, he’ll certainly be sent on his way with plenty of acclaim for his contributions over the years.
Going back a little bit further to when George Honeyman left the club in 2019, mere months after standing one game away from being a promotion-winning Sunderland skipper, it left an extremely sour taste in my mouth.
I believed (and still do, to a certain extent) that it was less to do with footballing reasons and more to do with quelling a potential fan backlash in the wake of our failed promotion campaign, and Honeyman, who now plies his trade at Millwall, seemed to take the rap.
‘A bottler’ and ‘a spineless captain’ were some of the atrocious epithets that were affixed to him that summer, neither of which were deserved in the slightest.
Let’s have it straight: Honeyman was a capable and versatile footballer, although perhaps not a ‘natural’ captain, and his hasty departure from the Stadium of Light was an episode that, with hindsight, should’ve been dealt with a hell of a lot better than it was.
Every local lad who takes to the field in the red and white stripes is living the dreams of the supporters for whom they play, and in doing so, they carry the expectations, hopes, and fears of the fans on their shoulders.
Indeed, whenever I take my seat inside the Stadium of Light and the Lads walk out to warm up or to kick off a game, it’s hard not to feel a stab of jealously amid the pride and excitement, along with the feeling of, ‘That could’ve been me, or anyone in this stadium, if only the cards had fallen differently’.
In that sense, perhaps we feel their ups and downs in form more acutely than those players who don’t have a lifelong connection with the club. After all, which of us wouldn’t swap places with them in a heartbeat?
When Michael Gray missed his penalty during the Division One playoff final at Wembley in 1998, his pain was our pain, and when he recovered to become a rampaging presence at left back during the 1998/1999 season, we shared in that, too.
Had social media existed back then, Gray would’ve doubtless been the fall guy, but all it took was an arm around the shoulder from Peter Reid and the love, support and vocal backing of the supporters, and he was able to put it behind him and move on.
The likes of Neil, Patterson, and Chris Rigg are shining examples of the pathway that now exists from our once-damaged academy into the first team. They’re talented, dedicated, and grounded, and the kind of footballers we should all be able to unite behind.
They care, they want to do the best they can, and they feel the pain of defeat and the elation of victory as acutely as the rest of us.
Tony Mowbray clearly believes in them, they believe in the future potential of the club, and as Neil showed on Saturday, they’re proving, once again, why the Stadium of Light is now such a positive environment for talented prospects to play.