It’s fair to say that the majority of Sunderland’s players didn’t exactly grasp the wonderful opportunity that Saturday’s FA Cup tie with Newcastle represented, and the chance to test themselves against a Premier League opponent and make them earn their victory slipped by in disappointing fashion for many of the Lads.
Yes, Luke O’Nien brought plenty of passion and ferocity; Alex Pritchard tried to get us on the front foot with some typically energetic play, and despite conceding an own goal and a penalty, Dan Ballard stood firm in defence and was as praiseworthy as anyone for the way he refused to take a backward step.
However, from a Sunderland perspective, there was one player who genuinely burnished his top flight credentials on Saturday, demonstrating that at some stage, he’s destined to run out against Premier League opposition on a weekly basis, and that was Dan Neil.
In the midst of a midfield battle that was often something of a mismatch as Pierre Ekwah and Jobe struggled to make any real impact against the class, intelligence and physicality of Bruno Guimarães and Joelinton, Neil threw himself wholeheartedly into the task and when the final whistle blew, he could truly say that he’d given everything for the red and white cause.
His mindset was as focused as ever, he played without fear and the level of maturity he demonstrated was extremely impressive.
Indeed, if any top flight scouts had their eyes on our number twenty four on Saturday, they couldn’t have failed to have been impressed by the attitude and application he demonstrated as many of his teammates sadly failed to rise to the occasion.
Despite the disappointing nature of the loss, no Sunderland player, Neil included, will find their future prospects determined by what happened on Saturday.
Yes, they found themselves facing a team of higher class and greater pedigree than they’d encountered before, but perhaps the most impressive thing about Neil’s performance was that he didn’t shirk, he didn’t refrain from making challenges, and he provided yet more evidence that he’s got the skill and the mentality to handle big games against top players.
Neil, like so many other local Sunderland players over the years, has often been given a ludicrously raw deal by our supporters.
There are pockets of fans who, for whatever reason, simply refuse to acknowledge the fact that he’s a diamond of a midfielder who made the step up from League One to the Championship with aplomb, and whose ceiling is easily high enough to take one more step and become a top flight midfield general.
In fact, there’s a part of me that hopes he gets a move to a Premier League club sooner rather than later, if only to show the doubters exactly what we’d lose. Homegrown players of his class come along once in a blue moon at our club (historically speaking, at least), and when they do, we need to cherish them.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d absolutely love to see Neil play a key role in a promotion-winning Sunderland team and to line up against the country’s elite sides in his beloved red and white stripes, but it feels like a safe bet that should this season not end with the club celebrating a return to the Premier League, he’ll be moving on, and doubtless for a sizeable fee.
Despite his status as a key player in Sunderland’s team, Neil’s game is not yet perfect.
He’s got the scope to add more goals and assists to sit alongside his impressive range of passing, and his footballing intelligence is improving all the time, but if top flight scouts are keeping a keen eye on his progress, surely they’ve been more and more impressed every time they’ve watched him.
The pain of Saturday’s defeat would’ve been felt more acutely by Neil than arguably any other player in the Sunderland ranks.
After all, he’s one of our own and he would’ve loved to have put one over on the old enemy, but he needn’t worry, because at some stage in the not-too-distant future, he’ll be facing opponents of the calibre of Newcastle on a weekly basis, and nobody should begrudge him that opportunity when it finally presents itself.
Enjoy him while you can and make the most of every classy piece of play he conjures up in a red and white shirt. Our academy is improving all the time and there’ll be more exciting talents to emerge in the years to come, but whether they’ll have as high a ceiling as Neil is a fifty-fifty call.
Nevertheless, wherever his career eventually takes him and whatever he goes on to achieve in football, we’ll be able to take great pride in the fact that he began his journey at his boyhood club, and that he made one hell of an impact into the bargain.