With the departures of established experienced players such as Danny Batth and Lynden Gooch, there has been a great deal of discussion around the inexperience of the squad that Tony Mowbray now has at his disposal.
Over the last couple of days, Mike Stubbs has taken a look at the leaders we still have who might help Sunderland’s exciting prospects cope with the ups and downs of a Championship season.
In this final instalment, today’s focus is on our very own Dan Neil.
Players who develop through Sunderland’s academy rarely have an easy ride.
George Honeyman became a scapegoat for all that was wrong with the club under the previous administration, and he’s gone on to become an established Championship player with both Hull City and Millwall. Indeed, one wonders what might have been if he had remained a Sunderland player.
The now-departed Lynden Gooch also endured periods where he was the focus of some fans’ frustration despite being an extremely committed player, and even Anthony Patterson had his share of vocal critics early last season.
One player who’s often suffered almost as badly as Honeyman is Dan Neil.
The additional scrutiny that being ‘one of our own’ inevitably brings at Sunderland certainly dogged him as he began the journey to becoming a midfield stalwart under Lee Johnson.
While Johnson deserves praise for persisting with Neil, despite the criticism the player was receiving, he was also guilty of overplaying the youngster, a mistake he also made with on Manchester City loanee Callum Doyle.
Young players need a more thoughtful and careful style of management, and Johnson failed to recognise that they both needed to be playing less.
The arrival of Alex Neil provided a respite for both, but they were benched, never to return as the Scot turned to the more established players in the squad.
It’s difficult to argue with his rationale, as he led us club to the playoffs, and on to promotion, but it was also the first indication that the former Preston boss and Sunderland weren’t aligned when it came to the emphasis on youth that the club were committed to.
Under Tony Mowbray, Dan Neil began to blossom again.
Corry Evans’ injury sent a shudder through the fanbase, because there simply wasn’t anyone in the squad who could play the role that Evans fulfilled. Coupled with Ross Stewart’s injury, it was seen as a hammer blow to our hopes of progression.
However, it was Neil, during his first season as a Championship player, who stepped up and into the Evans role. He curbed his natural attacking instincts and showed remarkable maturity in his personal discipline, as he grew into a solid midfield presence and mitigated the loss of our skipper.
This season, paired with the increasingly impressive Pierre Ekwah, Neil has been given greater freedom to display his attacking prowess.
Under Tony Mowbray’s more fluid and progressive approach to our second Championship season, Neil and Ekwah are sharing the defensive and offensive midfield duties. Their roles are now less predictable, making life much more challenging for our opponents.
It was Neil who reached the byline to head Jack Clarke’s deep cross back to Jobe Bellingham for the opener against Rotherham, and in the second half of that game, he popped up on the left side of the attack.
His delicious diagonal ball in response to Luis Hemir’s intelligent run should’ve led to the young Portuguese striker opening his Sunderland account against Southampton, but Gavin Bazunu made a decent save on what was an otherwise deeply unimpressive performance from the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I considered Neil to have been our most important and impressive player in our opening fixtures.
His work rate has been excellent - tracking back, making interceptions, winning tackles, launching attacks and joining in with them. In addition, he’s also provided the foundation for Ekwah to impose himself further forward.
That said, there is one aspect to Neil’s game that sometimes slips under the radar, and that’s his constant communication with his teammates.
When the ball is dead, Neil isn’t pausing for breath. Instead, he’s talking and making points to his colleagues. He’s often the player you’ll find at the touchline, instructions onboard from Mowbray or one of the coaching staff.
Whether by accident or design, at the tender age of twenty one, he’s become very much the ‘midfield general’ of the side, a role which belies his lack of experience at this level.
At the end of the transfer window, it would be natural to be concerned and point to the loss of experienced professionals such as Danny Batth and Lynden Gooch
But in Evans, Luke O’Nien, Dan Ballard, Bradley Dack and Neil, we have a core of players who each bring a variety of leadership qualities and skills to support their less experienced colleagues.
There’s also little doubt that with the club’s focus on recruiting players with the right character, other leaders will inevitably emerge as this exciting young squad continues to develop.