From his arrival at the Stade de la Lumière, Alex Neil was all business, with little time for subtleties. His press conferences are often sticky affairs, and while he always answers questions from the media, he often does so with thinly disguised annoyance at certain topics or inane questions.
Here is a coach who clearly prefers to spend his time on the training ground, in the dugout, and with his players in the locker room. Simply put, he’s no messing around and his belligerence is reflected in the team’s efforts on the pitch.
Over the past few weeks, the team has transformed from soft touches to a team of fighters. Under Neil, every player knows their role and their approach to every game is not based on arrogance, but on the clear belief that if they execute the plan they should come away with three points.
The late goals, many of which we scored and gave further impetus to our playoff charge, are indicative of the steel Neil brought to the club. Additionally, players such as Bailey Wright and Corry Evans really stand out, and their experience and leadership prove invaluable.
Under Lee Johnson, the team was always believed to be capable of breaking out of this division, but during its time in the dugout, players could also be frail and prone to making poor decisions.
If things didn’t go their way, it was much more likely that we would see a collapse and a heavy defeat, rather than have sincere faith that the players would stay strong and maintain their discipline in order to get back into the game.
There’s no doubt that Neil changed that, and his in-game management was one of the key aspects.
In recent weeks, clever and timely substitutions have often played a huge role in Sunderland’s results. This is something he deserves to be recognized for, and therefore, we gain momentum just when it is needed.
At this stage of the campaign, form is key and if possible we should try to rush through the playoffs, rather than limping like we did last season.
In my opinion, Sunderland look like a team on a mission, determined in their pursuit of three points every game and ready to do whatever it takes to secure a win.
Saturday’s match against Cambridge perfectly illustrated this new philosophy.
After taking a two-goal lead against ten men, we fell asleep after the restart and allowed Cambridge to cut the deficit in half.
In the past, the team would have faltered, panic would have set in, and we would have put ten men behind the ball and tried to hold a slim lead, with the inevitable consequences.
On Saturday, there was never the slightest trace of panic. Instead, the team fought back powerfully, scored a superb goal to make it 3-1 and eventually saw the game end easily. What was also noticeable was how the team visibly enjoyed themselves, and that’s something we should all appreciate.
As Sunderland fans, we’ve grown accustomed to looking at the playoff picture and figuring out who we don’t want to face, on the basis that they might ‘have too much for us’.
This is no longer the case.
We are now able to field a team that is confident, full of conviction and with the resilience to deliver results when needed. In many ways, the mindset of the team is a reflection of its manager, and we’re looking more and more like a team no one will want to play if a playoff spot is assured.