How Dan Neil's meteoric rise to Sunderland's first-team cemented England call-up and future captain credentials
Dan Neil’s rise into Sunderland’s first-team has been my favourite story of the season so far.
It is always brilliant to see a local lad or lass come through at the Academy of Light or Regional Talent Centre and make an impact in the senior game.
Over the years, we’ve watched as England stars Steph Houghton, Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson have made huge dents on football landscape after leaving Sunderland.
More recently the likes of George Honeyman, who later joined Hull City, Lynden Gooch (I know he’s American but he may as well be from Wearside at this point), Keira Ramshaw, Jessica Brown and Neve Herron have also broken through.
The next cab off the rank has been Dan Neil, who was proceeded ever so slightly by Elliot Embleton.
Neil, a classy midfielder, was in and around the first-team picture last season, making two league appearances, but failing to nail down a regular spot.
This campaign, however, has been a completely different story.
The 19-year-old has fast cemented himself as one of the most important members of Lee Johnson’s squad and is most certainly Sunderland’s most creative central midfielder if you take Embleton and Alex Pritchard out of the equation, who both tend to be deployed further forward.
Such has been Neil’s rise to first-team prominence that it is easy to forget that he started the season in an unfamiliar left-back position before the arrival of Dennis Cirkin.
After earning his head coach’s trust, however, Neil was moved into the middle and has excelled in the role and is now a firm fans’ favourite.
And Neil’s rewards have come thick and fast this season.
The youngster scored his first professional goal when he hit a long-range effort against Accrington Stanley last September in a 2-1 win in League One.
Neil was put up for media duties following the game and his buzz was infectious.
He spoke of his boyhood club, the passion and running to the stand where he used to watch the team with his family at the Stadium of Light alongside his aim to return to the international scene.
In the following months, Neil signed a new four-year deal on Wearside that will keep him at the club until the summer of 2025.
It was a sign of how well he had done that fresh terms were agreed a whole 18 months before his current deal was set to expire.
The rewards keep coming, though, and Neil was selected for the England U20 squad with the midfielder in line to face Portugal this coming Thursday, alongside his teammate Cirkin.
It is a fine prize for a fine player even if Sunderland’s form has tailed off in recent months.
Neil’s first England call up came back in 2016, when he made his junior debut and scored two goals.
Two months after the impressive outing, a serious injury ruled him out of football for almost two years.
But Neil has battled back impressively and shown why Johnson believes he could be a potential Sunderland captain one day, having already taken the armband in the Papa John’s Trophy already this campaign.