Sunderland’s Hillsborough heroics sum up Alex Neil’s Black Cats career so far

Micky Lough looks back on a famous night at Sheffield Wednesday where Sunderland did not stop believing

When Sheffield Wednesday carved Sunderland open with the one bit of genuine quality they showed all night with just over 15 minutes of normal time to play, everyone on Wearside thought they knew how the story was set to end.

We just don’t come out on the right side of games like this, we were all expecting the hosts to lay siege to Patterson’s goal and roared on by a sell out crowd they would surely find an extra 5% and go on to win the tie.

Except, this is a different Sunderland, this is Alex Neil’s Sunderland, this is a Sunderland side who fights to the end, who never know when they’re beaten and have scored post-87 minute goals on nine occasions since Neil took charge back in February.

Even the song that was blasted over the PA to try and drown out the jubilant travelling support was unintentionally poetic as over 2,000 fans swayed and belted out Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.

The sentiment very much sums up Alex Neil’s mentality during his time on Wearside and his approach to Monday night’s fixture.

It would have been easy for the Scotsman to panic and throw on his substitutions as soon as Wednesday took the lead, but he didn’t stop believing and held his nerve.

His faith in the players paid off and after weathering the storm five minutes after the goal we grew into the game and went toe to toe with the home side in the last knockings of the game.

He believed in the quality of the players he had on the pitch and once again we scored a crucial late goal to secure our passage to Wembley.

That level of self assurance is impressive enough out of context but when you consider that prior to Neil’s appointment we had won just one game in 2022 and beating Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 to top the league felt like a lifetime ago.

Since that night the lads had leaked 17 goals, scored just eight and had lost to lowly Cheltenham, Doncaster and Lincoln City.

By Neil’s own admission, there was to be no easy fix, he inherited a squad low on confidence, new arrivals low on minutes, youngsters experiencing burnout and a lack of options upfront and at the back.

In short, everything was a mess and fans were quickly losing patience as a fifth successive season in League One loomed large.

Since then however, he has turned us into a defensively solid outfit while still carrying plenty of threat going forward.

The decision to not make any substitutions until stoppage time on Monday underlined his ability to make decisions for the greater good of the team even if it may be unpopular among supporters.

In the second leg against Sheffield Wednesday fans were calling for fresh legs in the middle of the park and more solid defensive options out wide, but he stuck to his guns and got his rewards.

Contrastingly, at Oxford earlier in the season with the game entering the final 10 minutes, he brought on Danny Batth which overtly appeared to be negative, but in truth probably won us the game.

Batth negated the aerial threat posed by Karl Robinson’s men which gave us a platform to get a hold of the game again and enjoy more possession which ultimately led to our late winner.

In a more direct sense, five of Neil’s substitutes have gone on to score crucial goals as we secured our play off place.

Another thing Alex Neil has brought back is a sense of swagger and purpose back to the club, in his post-match interview after getting to Wembley he simply replied, ‘What? Too big for me?” when a reporter suggested that Neil may have been hesitant to take the job because he felt it was too big for him.

Of course, you can never be sure with Sunderland but with Neil’s single mindedness, tactical nous and self belief in the dug out I firmly believe we have a great chance of finally escaping this hell hole of a league.

See you at Wembley.