Mixed Emotions as Alex Neil Returns to Sunderland With Stoke City

Graeme Atkinson looks at the feelings on Wearside seven months on from Alex Neil's controversial departure to The Potteries

Alex Neil’s imminent return to the Stadium of Light, the first since departing in August 2022, throws up quite a few mixed emotions. Yet, gratitude is the one the which ultimately rises uppermost to the surface.

Sure, there is a slight hint of lingering resentment. It’s difficult, even now, to reconcile how the guy who roused a club succumbing to League One despair could set it on the right path but then depart so acrimoniously.

It’s hard too, to reflect upon our special Wembley weekend last year and not feel that the architect of that moment should still be part of the club’s current rebuilding. Let’s not forget confidence only began to once again course through the veins around SR5 thanks to the Scot. 

So much so that victory in the play-off final was considered by many to be a given, even before a whistle was blown. Stark contrast indeed to the atmosphere around the place before his arrival. 

The cultural fit was perfect. Results evidenced it worked. We were on to a good thing together.

Or so we thought…

Neil has spoken little about his former employer since that time and the record will perhaps never truly be set straight. Yet, what he said regarding his current club, after walking through the door at the Bet365 Stadium, suggested all was never rosy in the Wearside garden, “Other requirements are needed for me to do the job as much as I can and they are better suited here [at Stoke]. It’s not fair for me to go into more detail than that.” His freshly penned three year deal in the West Midlands was also telling.

The rolling one-year contract here did little to develop stability, for either party.

Looking back, perhaps we will never know why Neil thought Stoke City were the better choice. Money, geography, more control, dissatisfaction with Sunderland’s transfer blueprint – they have all been offered as reasons. Possibly it was a combination of all four. However, we should not speculate too much about his exit. Arguably this will always remain clouded. For that reason it is best placed to one side when reflecting upon his tenure. 

In fairness, Neil lit Sunderland’s current spark but it would be remiss not to recognise the good work of others. They certainly provided him with the match. Indeed, the club’s recruitment methods should be part of that conversation.

The majority of the players have shown their qualities this season too, enough to suggest that steered by a talented hand, success was always likely to follow. As such, Neil or no Neil, it is true to say that while one individual can be instrumental to a team’s success, it takes a great many others to get over the line. 

An interesting side note is that Neil’s move to Stoke City has yet to ignite as he would have hoped. Indeed, it is fair to say that for a section of the Potters’ fanbase it has been disastrous. Social media is never the best barometer to gauge the mood.

However, quotes such as, “Alex Neil is the worst manager we’ve had since relegation. He’s an absolute embarrassment” do seem to reflect a growing consensus around the Potteries.

While gratitude may extend to Neil for Sunderland’s revival, sympathy for his current situation does not. Indeed it is hoped that his former charges can add even more misery to his plight come 5pm on Saturday. 

Enter Tony Mowbray. The Scot may have given the club a shot in the arm but his Saltburn-born replacement has improved matters far beyond our pre-season expectations. This likely provides some vindication to those who felt Neil was never worth ripping up a blueprint for.

Indeed, arguably Mowbray is a better cultural fit than his predecessor. Were it not for injuries and a lack of strikers, who knows where this season could have taken us. And still may yet. Performances have been electric at times. So good in fact it’s hard to recollect a better brand of football being played by the Rokermen.

So, here we are. Happenstance dictates that just as Sunderland do begin to falter, it is Alex Neil’s Stoke City who become an opportunity to restore momentum. The manner in which he will be welcomed back to the Stadium of Light is sadly likely to be tarnished by how he left it.

Allowing the Lads to fend for themselves against Norwich City will ultimately always leave a bitter taste for many. Yet, a legacy should be defined by more than one action. Therefore, when the sum of the parts are studied, it must be considered an important one.