Alex Neil reveals stance on Sunderland contracts

Alex Neil says he has not made any plans beyond the end of the regular season, insisting that the club cannot afford to look beyond the next game in their bid to secure a play-off spot.
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Neil has taken charge of nine games since replacing Lee Johnson in February, and while there have been significant improvements in recent weeks the club's promotion prospects remain finely balanced.

Sunderland, as has been the case for the vast majority of their recent seasons, face uncertainty over what division they will be playing in next season and have little clarity over what their squad will look like as a result.

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Neil was clear as he oversees preparations for a crucial game against Oxford United that this is of no concern to him at the moment: "I'm not planning any further than April 30th," he said.

Sunderland boss Alex NeilSunderland boss Alex Neil
Sunderland boss Alex Neil

"I think there's a bit of a myth as well, that we've been going to get automatics, going to get automatics, year after year and then just fallen short.

"The highest we've finished is fourth and even then there was a gap [to the top two].

"That doesn't suggest to me you're falling the odd goal or point short, that suggests to me that you're a solid play-off team.

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"What we need to do is try to get ourselves into the play-offs, never mind any of those past failures, concerns or whatever you want to call them.

"There's just too much.... 'what about this, what about that?'

"Honestly, I feel as if I should worry crossing the road! You're never going to get anywhere if you live that way.

"As far as I'm concerned, Oxford is a key game and that has to be our focus. Is it the end of the world if we don't win the game? Naw. Is it a concern if we don't? Of course it is.

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"I'm not going to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it. I'm going to prepare my team, get myself ready for it, and go into it preparing to win. That's where I'm at.

"I'm not looking to the summer, beyond the summer, I'm not doing any of that.

"Win the next game: that is my only focus."

Unsurprisingly, Neil confirmed that there has therefore not been any discussions with any of the club's playing staff about their futures beyond the end of the season.

The Black Cats have seven senior players out of contract at the end of the campaign: Lee Burge, Lynden Gooch, Aiden McGeady, Arbenit Xhemajli, Patrick Roberts, Bailey Wright & Jordan Willis.

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The future of the club's five loanees is also uncertain and likely to be dependent at least in part on how Sunderland's promotion push ends.

Neil said: “There is none of those discussions taking place with any player.

"Everybody has been spoken to when I walked in the building and I’ve told them all, whatever your agenda looks like, whatever your dynamics are, park it.

“Because our sole focus at the moment is to try and finish the season as well as we can. Once we get to the end of the season, if we are successful in what we are trying to achieve, every single person will be in a better place to renegotiate a contract, move onto another club if that is what their desire is. Potentially stay here if that is what their desire is. All of that will be in a better place if we are successful.

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“If we’re not successful, then that’s when that becomes more difficult. So let’s park that to one side and focus on the job at hand."

A key feature of Neil's tenure so far has been adapting both his formation and his starting XI from week to week, having not had a pre-season to establish some core systems or a transfer window in which to recruit his own players.

The head coach says that will continue in the final six games of the season, and added that he nevertheless believes he does have the players required to finish strongly.

"Tomorrow is the longer term at the moment," Neil said.

"Listen, it's one of those at the moment, this team that I've currently got has got a good balance to it.

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"There are certain gaps within it that I've spoken about and there's no point going over old ground, there's nothing you can do about it at this stage of this season.

"What it has got is a lot of different tools for me to use. I'm utilising those and naturally with any team, you're going to have some strengths and some weaknesses. My job is to accentuate those strengths and mask the weaknesses, making sure that we cover them whether it be through shape, personnel or strategy.

"That's why the team has probably fluctuated from match to match because I've looked at what's necessary to win, and then picked a team accordingly.

"I'll continue to do that between now and the end of the season because unfortunately for me, I haven't had the pre-season to get that base [understanding] in or been able to recruit players to do things a certain way.

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"What I will say is, this squad I've currently got is certainly capable of bringing us success this season and that makes me really confident in what we're trying to do."

Neil signed a 12-month rolling contract when taking charge earlier this year.