Alex Neil discusses Sunderland’s next steps and lays out his stand amid ownership chaos
Sunderland have taken their first step forward after five years of decline, but Alex Neil and his players face a difficult task given the current situation at the club.
Image: Sunderland AFC via Getty Images)
Squeezing a pint of Budweiser, Alex Neil pledged to spend two days drinking – then discussing Sunderland’s intricacies in the Championship.
The Scot was a little emotional: “My biggest fear in football has always been letting people down. It weighs heavily on me. I came here for this scrutiny and pressure. We can’t let them down “So for two days I’m going to have a really good drink. I’m going to be hungover for a few days. Then I’ll think about the championship. They can call me when I’m better.”
Next to the Wembley Tunnel, the Sunderland players didn’t bother to change out of their strip, lining up on the team bus for a hotel party. Playmaker Alex Pritchard swept past and Neil yelled: ‘What a fucking player! ownership structure can provide “the tools” it needs to be competitive at the second level.
“Controlling shareholder” Louis-Dreyfus does not hold the majority of shares. The Madrox Group of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori remain majority shareholders, and they need to prove they can raise more investment… or more likely sell now that they have their Championship club bonus.
Neil said: “I want to be at Sunderland. I want to be here, I want to move on, and we still have a lot to do. But what you have to understand is that you are going to a new level. I want the tools to do the job. There are teams coming in on parachute payments and guys on £100,000 a week scoring 43 goals a season. It’s a difficult, difficult level.
“I’ve been told a million times that we’re not a Ligue 1 team, but there’s a lot of hard work to get you to that level, because that level is really tough. I walked through the door and it was, ‘Well, there’s the team, winning games’ And I said ‘No problem’.
“But when the transfer windows open up and you go to the next level and you aspire to be higher than that level, then it’s very different. There have to be investments and different facets that make you competitive in the next league. If you’re doing a job, I’m sure you want the tools to do that job. I’m no different.
“Whether (the ownership is) shared, whether it’s one individual, whether it’s three, whether it’s 10, I don’t really mind. It’s up to them. What I want is is to do the best I can for the club, the rest is not my problem.
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Neil, on a rolling 12-month contract, wants to stay and has spoken of a ‘bond’ since joining in February and his 16-game unbeaten streak. He concluded: “I’m moved because I wanted to give them something they’ve been craving for five years. People love a fallen giant, don’t they? They love to kick people when they are down. What we have done is elevate ourselves. It makes me the proudest person in the world right now.
Difficult talks await us. One of the great stories of waste and mismanagement in football is how Sunderland turned £890million in Premier League revenue over 15 seasons in the top flight into a League One club. But ultimately, they are on the rise. Not quite “back” and where they want to be long term, but the Championship will do for now.
On Saturday, Wembley was a blur of red and white, and the noise of Wearside to see Alex Neil shake off any burden of past play-off defeats and six years of decline and stagnation.
Feisty Neil stirred something. Tactically wise and no frills honesty in his player management. Patrick Roberts said of Neil: “He doesn’t take nonsense as you know. He speaks the truth and tells it as it is. I think he’s huge (to keep the manager). He is the calmest man around and knows what to do tactically. He was fantastic, even with players like me.”
When asked if a victory would be “transformational”, Neil preferred to see it as a stepping stone. “I’m not entirely convinced. Getting back to where we want to be as a club is the next step. I think there’s a bit of optimism around Sunderland which is good… a little anticipation of what is to come. Everyone has had a better view of us as a club.
It’s an unusual sentiment from a Sunderland manager in recent years. They started the ascent. Consecutive relegations, rushing for four seasons trying to get out of Ligue 1, while still being watched by crowds of over 30,000 in the third tier. Parachute payments have been blocked, costs reduced and a turnover of £100m a year has fallen to £10.7m, in their recent accounts.
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But they never lost their grassroots support from a city desperate to revive its flagship institution. On Friday night, Trafalgar Square was overrun with Mackem fans, dancing in fountains and launching red flares. At least 47,000 at Wembley, and whole families traveling on weekends to be part of it. That’s why Sunderland kept counting.
Neil had none of the historic omens that come with Sunderland at Wembley. And his team played without the burden of the past. Sharp, positive and not giving an inch from the start, local academy boy Elliot Embleton dribbled past from his own half to crush David Stockdale on 12 minutes. Ross Stewart slipped home the clincher, his 26th of a magnificent season.
Weighed down by 10 previous trips to Wembley that only brought three wins? No chance. So to the FA Cup in 1937 and 1973, and a Football League trophy last season in front of an empty stadium restricted by COVID, add a League One play-off final that revives the club.
Blockade campaigns have been cruel, but not this one. Three previous visits to Wembley and defeat in 1990 against Swindon, the penalty shootout heartbreak in 1998 and Michael Grey’s famous miss, and the last-minute defeat in 2019, both against Charlton. Mackem fans and players who faced the pressure to deliver, deserved their moment of celebration.