He’s now so firmly established in Sunderland’s first team and is so highly regarded by the majority of our fans that it often seems scarcely believable that only two years have passed since Dan Neil first started to take strides in senior football.
Neil’s progression from a promising homegrown prospect to an increasingly influential Championship midfielder has been the result of commitment, a relentless desire to improve and above all, exceptional coaching in an environment that encourages talent to flourish.
Like fellow academy graduate Anthony Patterson, he gets it, he understands exactly what it means to pull on a red and white shirt, and our progression from League One to the Championship will mean as much, if not more, to him as anyone else at the club.
It’s fair to say that Neil’s journey hasn’t always been straightforward, but it’s certainly been memorable.
As we embraced a ‘data-driven recruitment policy’ during the summer of 2021, following a failed playoff campaign the previous season, the pathway from the academy to the first team was also being relaid as we brought in players from elsewhere, and Neil was among the main beneficiaries.
A favourite of Lee Johnson’s for much of the 2021/2022 campaign, Neil showed flashes of promise in League One and also chipped in with some key goals before Johnson departed.
Subsequently, Alex Neil arrived and the youngster’s progress was curtailed somewhat as our stuttering season was reinvigorated and promotion eventually secured.
However, since Neil’s departure for Stoke, his namesake has gone from strength to strength and under the strong, firm, yet patient guidance of Tony Mowbray, he’s now a key component and utterly crucial to the way we play.
Is he sometimes underappreciated? Is it a case of having to look particularly closely in order to understand his importance to the team? That might be subjective, but it's undeniable that his influence is now as strong as it's been since his debut, and Sunday’s game was a great example.
We might've come unstuck in the dying embers against Cardiff, but on a day of frustration at our failure to convert dominance into a victory, Neil stood tall and controlled matters in the middle of the park with aplomb.
This season, his partnership with Pierre Ekwah has flourished during the early stages of the campaign but with Ekwah currently absent due to a dead leg, Neil was elevated to the role of ‘senior partner’ alongside Jobe Bellingham against Blackburn and Cardiff- something that sounds slightly ridiculous given his tender age, but he played with the composure of a veteran on both occasions.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Neil’s improvement has been his positioning, his awareness of what’s around him at all times, and his ability to snuff out imminent danger. He’s always been blessed with skill on the ball and the ability to pick incisive passes, but like any young talent, there were weaknesses in his game that needed to be ironed out.
During 2022/2023, there were times when he would receive the ball on the half-turn and was sometimes unaware of an opponent’s position. This often led to the loss of possession in dangerous areas and against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, a red card as he crudely hauled down James McAtee.
It was a harsh lesson, but one he’s undoubtedly learned from.
As demonstrated with his well-taken strike at Ewood Park, Neil also has a keen eye for goal and if there’s another aspect of his game that he could potentially improve, chipping in with goals could be it.
I’d love to see him use that boundless energy to make runs into the final third to get himself on the end of passes or, as Ekwah did so successfully against Southampton, test opposing goalkeepers with long-range efforts.
Perhaps that’ll come with time, because he’s still only twenty one years old. His ceiling is very, very high, and it’s exciting to consider how good he’ll be a year or eighteen months further down the line.
Twenty four hours before the transfer window closed, a rumour was circulating on Twitter than Liverpool were showing an interest in Neil and although nothing ultimately came of it and may not do so for a while, it’s a testament to exactly how much he’s improved that he’s potentially appearing on the radars of such clubs.
It’s true that his maiden Championship campaign wasn’t entirely plain sailing, but thanks to Tony Mowbray’s backing, patience from the majority of fans and his own self-belief, Neil navigated those tricky periods and emerged far stronger for the experience.
He’s currently in one of the most consistent and impressive runs of form of his Sunderland career to date, and he’s stepping up, taking responsibility, and rising to the challenge of keeping things ticking over in the red and white engine room.