Sunderland ace Dan Neil's brilliant verdict on 'surreal' Roker End moment

Still just 19, Dan Neil remains a young player in his first full senior season, living out his boyhood dream.

Monday, 13th December 2021, 6:21 pm
Dan Neil in action at the Stadium of Light

He’s also now an integral part of this Sunderland side, crucial to its attacking threat and a central part of the promotion push.

There are moments when the two come together and there is little wonder the midfielder can’t resist a little smile.

Sunderland’s well-worked early corner against Plymouth Argyle was perfectly executed, Alex Pritchard’s low corner flicked into a dangerous area by Callum Doyle.

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Neil revealed afterwards that the one slight hitch in the plan had been that the ball hadn’t intended to roll to him as it did; as he was making his way to the edge of the area for any potential follow-up.

But it speaks to his composure that when it did, he made no mistake in emphatically rolling it into the far corner.

Minutes later, he was in the channel over on the left flank when the Roker End broke out in a chrous of ‘Dan Neil, he’s one of our own’.

Game face on, always, but a little moment of reflection inevitable.

“The ball went out for a throw-in and there was a little bit of an injury, so I did manage to take it in,” Neil told The Echo, reflecting on a vital 2-1 win.

“I was trying not to smile, but I'm sure there was a little one that came out.

“It's a bit surreal, to be honest, but you've got to quickly switch back on because the goal doesn't mean a great deal if we don't get the win.”

Sunderland made harder work of this one than they perhaps should have done, a dominant first-half performance not yielding a scoreline as emphatic as it could have been.

Even after Plymouth’s second-half goal the better chances fell to the hosts, but despite a nervy finish the points were well-deserved.

“In this division, two goals sometimes isn't enough,” Neil said.

“We knew that going into half time, and so that was probably a bit frustrating.

“To be honest I thought even in the second half, we picked and choose our moments to counter-attack on them, and when to keep the ball in our half, and we did it perfectly.

“We could have been out of sight, but we weren't, and then that's when as a side everyone has to put a shift in defensively.

“We did that, and we have done that the past few weeks, it was a brilliant team performance in the end to get a win.”

It can be easy to forget that Neil started the pre-season campaign with it not entirely settled whether he would be part of the first-team group, or head out on loan for game time.

That he started the opening day at left back underlined his challenge then in establishing himself as a midfield regular. Now, his exclusion would likely cause a major stir.

The point being that the twists and turns of a regular season, particularly one with Sunderland in League One, is new not just to Neil but a significant section of this young squad.

Neil feels the team have their ‘mojo’ back now, and that poor run could prove as big a learning experience as those early-season days of heady optimism.

"That international break came at a good time for us and ever since then the mood has been really, really good,” Neil explained.

“Four wins and two draws in the last six, to be honest we're disappointed with the draws but it's a marathon, not a sprint and it's always better to take something from the game.

“We're chipping away, the mood has been spot on and we feel like we've got that mojo back.

“I think this little rest will do us good going into a heavy schedule before the end of the year.

“I think the gaffer has mentioned it but that was the first time a lot of us have dealt with a real poor run of form, at such a massive club.

“We had to grind our way through it and that international break came at a good time.

“Now that we've come out of it, it's made us stronger for the future.

“The more experienced players helped us through that and a lot of credit goes to them.

"We do feel we'll be stronger for the future.”

That early strike was also significant for Neil as it’s one of area of his game where he’s striving for improvement.

His assist tally so far is excellent (the highest in the league, removing set pieces from the equation), and well on track for his pre-season target.

In front of goal, though, he thinks there is more to come.

“I still want to chip in with a few more goals, to be honest,” he said.

“I think I'm doing well in terms of the assists. At the start of the season I was looking at 6-8 goals, 8-10 assists.

“So it was good to pick up another goal, but like I say I want a few more before the end of the season.”

His form has also no doubt been aided by the excellence of Carl Winchester alongside him, the Northern Irishman building the platform on which Neil and Pritchard are currently thriving.“I've enjoyed playing with all the lads, to be honest, but unfortunately Luke and Corry have obviously picked up those injuries,” Neil said.

“Winchy has been brilliant in there, I think.

“He never stops for 90 minutes, ratting around, picking up second balls, and then he's got that quality in that possession.

“I've really enjoyed it.”

Tough tests lie ahead for Neil and his side, starting with Ipswich Town next weekend.

A turbulent month or two will leave them all the stronger for it.