The Black Cats had been so reliant on the Scottish frontman that it even led to Neil claiming Stewart had been 'flogged to death' following a goalless draw with Plymouth in April.
Following that stalemate at Home Park, Stewart would end an eight-match goal drought by scoring a brace against Cambridge six days later.
He then netted crucial goals against Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe in the play-offs to take his tally to 26 for the season.
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Still, it’s clear Sunderland can’t be as dependent on the 26-year-old as they prepare to return to the Championship.
Thankfully the Scot was able to start every League One fixture last term, demonstrating his durability after struggling with a hamstring injury when he first moved to Wearside 18 months ago.
Stewart racked up a whopping 4,698 minutes in League One during the last campaign, with only goalkeeper David Stockdale (playing for Wycombe) receiving more game time in the third tier.
That was partly down to Stewart’s importance to Sunderland but also a lack of alternatives. The latter point remains an issue and is something that needs addressing this summer.
Stewart’s stock has risen significantly over the last 12 months, with the club looking to reward him with a new long-term contract.
It’s not just the goals which have contributed to Scot’s elevated profile, either, with his ability to run into channels, hold the ball up and press from the front all adding to his importance.
Yet that also leaves another dilemma when trying to attract new signings to Sunderland. How much game time could they realistically guarantee a young centre-forward, for example, knowing that Stewart will be first choice?
Last season the Black Cats appeared to find a sufficient solution with Nathan Broadhead, as the Welshman could play alongside Stewart or operate as a wide forward.
Sunderland are interested in re-signing the 24-year-old from Everton this summer, which would appear to be a good fit, yet Broadhead’s injury woes during the 2021/22 campaign would still leave concerns.
There is also the complication that he only has a year left on his contract at Goodison Park, making another loan move less likely.
Toffees boss Frank Lampard may also want to have a closer look at Broadhead during pre-season, following the striker’s recent international call-up as well as Richarlison’s move from Everton to Tottenham.
So with Stewart set to lead the line, Sunderland will be searching for forwards who can offer versatility, players who can work alongside Stewart as well as being able to replace him.
Another option is to sign an additional wide player who they believe could also play as a central striker, as they did with Jack Clarke last season. That would represent more of a gamble.
Whatever route they decide to pursue, Neil will know his side can’t be as over-reliant on Stewart during the upcoming campaign.
Finding an available target who fits the Black Cats’ criteria may prove challenging though.