Alex Neil is the one man that held the fragility of success together at Sunderland

Graeme Atkinson looks at the fall-out as Alex Neil is set to leave Sunderland and take on the managerial role at Stoke City

Within the pantheon of Sunderland AFC’s derailments, you could argue Ross Stewart’s goal against Stoke City now, bizarrely it seems, has the dubious honour of sitting alongside Harry Kane taking corners. Both set in train a series of unfortunate events that sent the Black Cats careering off course.

Nothing has been confirmed; yet, if we had to choose which feels worse – losing Sam Allardyce or Alex Neil, it is the Scot’s impending departure that rankles most.

When Allardyce left Wearside, it was for what is regarded by some to be the pinnacle of any English manager’s career. The club resided in the Premier League and David Moyes seemed the obvious choice to continue an upward swing. In the here and now, we have seen much comment on social media that ‘no one person is bigger than the club’ following rumours linking Neil to the Potters. However, whilst this may be true it is also surely accurate to say that one individual can be crucial to its success.

Here in lies the issue at hand.

In losing Alex Neil, more so than any other manager at the club in recent times, we will be losing the one man who held the fragility that is seemingly Sunderland’s success, tightly together.

We should not forget that around 75% of this squad were fifth in League One only a few short months ago. An achievement in itself given the very on brand streak of results Lee Johnson had taken us all on around January. It was Neil who orchestrated promotion make no mistake. The manner in which we stopped, almost immediately, conceding goals can surely be linked directly to his arrival in February.

Rightly, the current players are being heralded for adapting well to life in the Championship and for their spirited performances thus far. But, as we have seen with our own eyes, those same players can perform wildly differently depending who is in charge of them. It is by no means certain that the positive performances we have witnessed over the last six months of Neil’s tenure will continue without him.

If the Scot is on the verge of leaving us – a club historically considered to be a much bigger proposition than Stoke City, with a far higher ceiling for potential – understandably perhaps, feelings of disloyalty are festering amongst some supporters. After all, if the Black Cats are a sleeping giant it was Neil who began to make them stir. It is unlikely he will feel the same enormity of a fan base backing him again and that may feel a confusing choice to make for those with red and white DNA.

In this light, much has also been made of his rolling 12-month contract, a deal which was reportedly improved upon following Wembley success. It was ‘Neil who insisted on this type of deal’, so the theory goes.

If, and it’s a big one, it was indeed Neil who insisted upon a rolling 12 month contract here, surely the most interesting question is what would be the reason behind it? History shows us that at Norwich and Preston North End he was quite prepared to sign long term contracts when the terms were right.

The worry for this writer is that Neil was wary of how things were being run behind the scenes and wanted to understandably keep his options open.

That does not mean Sunderland AFC should be held to ransom by him or anyone else. Paying out obscene sums would not be prudent. Yet, if we accept Neil is at least a top six Championship coach, is it not appropriate to pay him a salary commensurate with his ability? It would seem Stoke felt so.

Reports from the Athletic recently suggested Neil maybe doubling or even tripling his wages should he elect to take up the hot seat at the bet365 Stadium. They further stated, “Sunderland cannot and will not match those sums, though they did make a counteroffer once Stoke came in.”

The Louis-Dreyfus model of being sustainable is admirable in its approach. But no belief in a plan should be so dogmatic. Surely pragmatism dictates that to continue with that upward swing on Wearside, something we have not seen in years, key individuals need to be paid what they are worth? That is, by any measure, sustainability.

Rumours also surfaced yesterday suggesting Neil did not feel backed in the transfer market. As we know, players have been brought in, keeping the spine of the team together from the last campaign. Arguably only two players have been acquired to really add quality and one is now out long term. Yes, sums of money may have been spent, more than Stoke even given their restrictions, but being backed does not necessarily mean with money. It can also be about backing a manager with the profile of player that is considered essential for survival in the second tier. It is clear experience is required to bolster a very inexperienced squad. Did Neil need the remaining few days of the transfer window to play out to understand that his requested ‘experience’ was unlikely to be forthcoming? We will know by 1st September 2022.

Another myth to bust must be the fact that Neil never really committed to the area. If that is held up as significant, let us not forget Roy Keane spent most of his time in Cheshire and Sam Allardyce in Dubai. That one can be put to bed quickly one assumes. 

All in all, Alex Neil will be missed that much is certain. It is down to the club now to learn lessons from past failures and ensure that his impending loss is not felt so deeply. Based on recent events it feels difficult to accept that is likely.