Dan Neil discusses his Sunderland progress, January loan decision and Lee Johnson's exciting midfield comparison

Late in the game, Dan Neil took possession and within the blink of an eye, Max Power was free to drive towards the byline.
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Such was the speed of the pass, your initial thought was that this may have been a moment of over-exuberance from the youngster, a simple ball overhit.

Not so. It was a passage of play that reflected his growing confidence in the game, and his increasingly impressive link-up play with those around him.

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As Sunderland began to coast through what had been an often challenging night, the overwhelming impression was of a young player taking another step forward.

Sunderland youngster Dan NeilSunderland youngster Dan Neil
Sunderland youngster Dan Neil

‘Excellent’, was Lee Johnson’s initially succinct verdict on what he had seen from the 19-year-old.

Neil’s game time since the arrival of the head coach has been relatively limited but that should not disguise the impression he has made behind the scenes.

Johnson has compared the player to one of his most successful coaching project at Barnsley and Bristol City and after this latest cameo, he couldn’t resist doing so again.

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“I had a player called Josh Brownhill, who plays for Burnley now,” Johnson said.

“We signed him from Preston and then developed him. I had him at Barnsley on loan, and he developed himself with a great attitude.

“I just see so many similarities between those two players. It’s fascinating for me to see the way they can play it around the corner, which is a bit of a dying art, and have good charisma on the pitch.

“We need to keep encouraging that more.

“He shoots well in training, he’s got good technique. I think there’s a bit of physical maturation to come, which we know, but what a great player to have in our ranks.”

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Physically there is clearly much development to come but at 19, time is very much on Neil’s side.

His poise in possession leaves you wondering whether league contributions could come sooner rather than later but either way, Sunderland have an exciting prospect for the years ahead.

Neil could have become the latest promising youngster to leave the academy this summer, but told the club had no intention of leaving his boyhood club, and every intention of proving he could be a first-team player.

A first professional deal followed and it’s clear that Johnson is excited at the potential he has to work with.

Neil, though, knows that the hard work starts now.

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“[Josh Brownhill] it's a nice comparison but I'm sure at one stage he was where I am and he got where he is now from working hard, listening, and by doing those extras,” he said.

“That's what it is about, keep working hard and then hopefully I can get to that level one day.

“The new manager has been great, he's very technical and tactical.

“He's worked with me a lot, I'm really enjoying his sessions and I can't wait to keep working with him and learning from him.”

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Sunderland had weighed up the possibility of a first loan last month but Johnson was reluctant, particularly as he would not have been able to recall him from a League Two side.

There is an obvious desire on Neil’s part to play regularly but equally, he appreciates that his long-term prospects can only be boosted by working closely with Johnson, understanding exactly what the head coach demands from players in his position.

“I see both sides of it [loan],” Neil said.

“I'm keen to play games but it's a very strong squad here, players like Grant, Josh, then Luke coming into midfield.

“There's real competition.

“From my point of view I want to play games but above all else I just want to keep learning.

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“And I think I can learn from the gaffer because he's a very good coach and I think there's a lot to learn from him.”

It was not always a comfortable night either for Neil or his Sunderland team-mates.

MK Dons outplayed and overran the Black Cats at the Stadium of Light earlier this season and while they did not stretch Sunderland as much as they would have liked here, they controlled possession for long periods.

That in itself was a good learning experience from the young midfielder.

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His maturity and understanding of the hard work ahead is striking when he talks and his assessment of the game reflected that.

“It was a good night,” he said.

“The lads worked dead hard from start to finish.

“It was tough at the start, credit to them, they played some good stuff. We stuck to our guns and controlled the game I thought, especially in the last 25 minutes.

“We were able to then get those two goals to seal it.

“We obviously want to dominate possession in every game but sometimes it doesn't quite happen like that.

“They play good football and we saw that when they came to the Stadium of Light in the league game. So we knew it wouldn't be easy but we stuck to our guns, kept the back door shut and we knew we'd find openings on the break later on if we did that.

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“Hopefully it's another trip to Wembley and the thing about these cup games is that it can help you build some momentum going into the league, so hopefully we can carry the form into our Saturday games.”

How much of a part Neil has to play in the second half of the season remains to be seen, but this was a night when he will have earned plenty of trust from his head coach.

Neil clearly won’t get carried away, and that is to his credit.

This is a 19-year-old here to stay.

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