Alex Neil reveals a key factor in his Sunderland team selections during play-off race

Alex Neil says that experience is key as the stakes are raised ever-higher in Sunderland's season, both in the dugout and on the pitch.

By Phil Smith
Wednesday, 6th April 2022, 6:00 am

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The Sunderland head coach is seeing the strength in depth across his squad improve as players return from injury, such as Luke O'Nien in midfield and Danny Batth at the heart of defence.

That led to Neil naming one of the most experienced line-ups of his tenure so far on Saturday, as the Black Cats came overcame a resilient Gillingham side in the 95th minute.

Neil says his young players will still have a significant part to play between now and the end of the month, but admits that the level of pressure and scrutiny is a factor to take into consideration.

Sunderland boss Alex Neil

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“There’s experienced players in that team, and the team today was probably far more experienced than it has been before," Neil said.

"With what’s at stake at the moment, and with the pressure and scrutiny that we’re under as a club, then I think sometimes experience is sometimes very, very important, particularly with six or seven games remaining. I’ve leaned on that a little bit more. "That’s not to say that will be the case in every game between now and the end of the season, because it won’t.

"But certainly, for the game against Gillingham, it was important."

Sunderland are now seven games unbeaten ahead of what will be another vital game against play-off rivals Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday.

After a challenging start Sunderland's record under Neil is improving significantly ahead of the final run-in, and Neil feels his experience as a manager will be key in managing the pressure over the final stages.

“In my opinion, this job is not for an inexperienced manager," Neil said.

"I think if you come into something this size, with the expectation it carries, then I think experience is absolutely crucial.

"What I lean on at the moment, at these times when I’m still learning and picking things up [about the club and players], is that I’ve been here before in different scenarios.

"I’ve been here with different clubs, I’ve been here with different expectations, and I know what it looks like to get out of a league. I know what it looks like to create a winning team in a really short space of time. That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment.

"It’s certainly not easy, because if it was, everybody would do it.

"But I’m doing my best, and I think we’re doing okay."

One of Neil's biggest calls ahead of the weekend will be whether he brings Nathan Broadhead into the starting Xi after his match-winning cameo on Saturday.

The head coach almost brought him straight back into the starting Xi against Gillingham but opted against it on the player's advice: "I spoke to Nathan yesterday and asked if he felt he could start, and he felt maybe bedding him in with 30,40 minutes might be better.

"He had a very good 30 minutes, so that was pleasing."

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