Alex Neil: Sunderland boss ‘proud’ as Championship return promotion sealed at Wembley

Huge support from Sunderland may have buoyed Alex Neil’s side to victory at Wembley

Boss Alex Neil says ending Sunderland’s four-year wait for promotion to the Championship with Saturday’s League One final victory over Wycombe makes him the “proudest person”.

The Black Cats arrived at Wembley having lost their previous three play-off finals, the last in 2019.

Goals from Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart ensured there would be no more disappointment for their 46,000 fans.

“My emotion is satisfaction and relief,” Neil told BBC Radio Newcastle.

“For what we’ve managed to deliver to so many people, there were 46,000 here, so many in Trafalgar Square. My job here has always been to keep people happy and give them something they’ve been craving.

“It makes me the proudest person in the world right now that we’ve managed to do this, and I’m so happy for them more than anyone.

“I don’t get too high with too many things. My fear in football is letting people down – as a player, coach or manager – and so that, for me, gives me great satisfaction.”

We had to start fast, says defender Batth

Danny Bath
Danny Batth and his defensive colleagues had to be on the ball to deal with the threat from Wycombe

One of the defensive heroes at Wembley for Sunderland, with Alex Pritchard, Stewart and Patrick Roberts providing the vanguard at the other end, was defender Danny Batth.

The 31-year-old, who helped Wolves recover from their fall into the third tier with promotions to the Premier League earlier in his career, has added another notable achievement to his CV with the Black Cats.

“It was up to us to give the fans something to celebrate,” Batth told BBC Radio Newcastle.

“They’ve had some disappointments over the past few years, so it was important that we showed we were ready and that we had to start quickly.

“Scoring the first goal was our priority and we believed in it. We knew we could do it.

“As the game went on we felt we had the majority of the territory and possession, and that’s thanks to the way the manager set us up.”

Started by Johnson, finished by Neil

The former Norwich and Preston boss Neil’s influence since joining the club in February can certainly be measured in the statistics, with one defeat in 16 games and a play-off push that culminated in a return to the second tier.

Man of the match Pritchard said he thought the Scot had made Sunderland “more solid”, and it’s clear the players bought into his ethos as he earned respect at Wearside.

“What Neil has done since joining the club deserves a lot of credit,” former captain Gary Bennett told BBC Radio Newcastle.

“He identified that there were too many young players in the squad and wanted more experience.

“The way he approaches every game, he looks at every game and looks at the weaknesses and the strengths. He looks at the big picture.”

BBC Radio Newcastle’s Total Sport presenter Simon Pryde told BBC Sport: “He’s tightened up the defence, changed form, enjoyed spirited but good-humored exchanges with reporters and – most importantly – delivered results.

“Sunderland went to Wembley after a 15-game unbeaten run. The tide has turned. No more new lows, for a while at least, but maybe a fresh start.”

There were mentions of former boss Lee Johnson by the players in their post-match engagements, while praising Neil’s work to see the job through to fruition.

Johnson, dismissed at the end of January after a 6-0 thrashing by Bolton, had laid some of the foundations for that achievement during his 13-month tenure in charge.

He led the Black Cats to the play-offs last season, only to lose to Lincoln in the semi-finals, and they were third in League One, just two points off the top, when he left.

“Johnson deserves a mention,” added former Black Cats forward Marco Gabbiadini. “Sunderland came into Christmas with more than two points per return game.

“I think he would have done well to get Sunderland over the line. The players started to falter and at the time he didn’t have the players to replace them.”

A long journey home

Jermain Defoe leaves after his relegation in 2017
Jermain Defoe feels the pain of Premier League relegation in 2017, despite scoring 15 league goals

To understand the exaltation and relief of the Wembley scenes is to understand the journey.

Since the closure of the shipyards and the decline of mining, there has not been such a miserable time on the banks of the Wear and their catchment area of ​​County Durham, as there has been with Sunderland’s slide into the third tier of English football.

Back-to-back relegations and a four-year battle to win promotion to the Championship have sparked a rot that has now not only been stopped, but green shoots are finally springing up.

Including the forgettable stint of David Moyes in charge, who began the slide with relegation from the Premier League in May 2017, there have been seven different permanent managers, and four in League One years.

“If I had a pound every time a fan said, ‘This is the lowest point in Sunderland history’, on Total Sport for the past five years, I would feel like ‘have enough money to buy a subscription to the Stadium of Light,’ said presenter Pryde, who has hosted BBC Radio Newcastle’s late-night sports show since its debut in 2009.

“The fact is that most of these people weren’t exaggerating. Abject relegation from the Premier League under Moyes followed by a rapid fall through the Championship led, without a doubt, to the darkest period in history. history of the club.”

It was too painful for the fans and TV gold for the documentary makers, who had signed a deal for a Netflix series about life at the Stadium of Light.

Simon Grayson took over from Moyes – on paper a shrewd move given his experience – but he left in November after winning in 15 league games.

Chris Coleman, who galvanized a nation by taking Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, was another boss with a decent CV, but again, with the in-house film crew capturing every crisis he could not avoid the fall.

There was some optimism following Stewart Donald’s takeover of Texas businessman Ellis Short just before the end of the 2017-18 season.

Short’s financial contribution had been undermined in the eyes of fans by poor decisions regarding managerial appointments and player recruitment.

“They replaced the pink, faded seats at the Stadium of Light and they changed the music the team rushed to,” Pryde recalled.

“They drank with fans, they walked into BBC Radio Newcastle studios and took calls. ‘The **** party ends here,'” Donald’s sidekick Charlie Methven said. during one of these appearances.

“Anyone who has watched the documentary ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ on Netflix knows that it was actually just getting started.”

Even that relationship would later turn sour, with Donald selling to Swiss Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, then 23 years old – son of the former Marseille shipowner Robert Louis-Dreyfus.

But back to football. After reaching League One, former Alloa and St Mirren boss Jack Ross was signed in the summer of 2018, having achieved promotion success in Scotland on strict budgets – and firsts directions were impressive.

Other than the first two weeks of the regular season and the very last, the Wearsiders have never been out of the top four and have only lost two league games between August and the new year.

Lynden Gooch and Luke O'Nien
Lynden Gooch [kneeling] and Luke O’Nien were both winners today, but easily remember the 2019 injury

However, the sale of top scorer Josh Maja to French side Bordeaux deprived Sunderland of their main target and proved costly as a win in their last seven games saw automatic promotion slip away.

Another dreaded play-off campaign ended with Wembley’s disappointment at the hands of Charlton, 20 years after the epic penalty shoot-out loss to the Addicks after a thrilling 4-4 ​​draw.

Patrick Bauer’s header in injury time again left Sunderland’s players flat and dejected on the turf at the National Stadium. It was a familiar theme.

The anticipation, expectation and pressure to lift the club out of the third tier weighed heavily on managers as Phil Parkinson was unable to deliver play-off football after a Covid-affected season – and Lincoln put on end to Johnson’s team hopes last season.

Johnson delivered silverware, with the EFL trophy, but no promotion. That Wembley experience, however, served the club well.

It took Neil’s arrival to bring them over the play-off line, repeating promotion feats at Hamilton and Norwich earlier in his career.


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