The Sunderland youngster who has shown Lee Johnson he's 'ready' for first-team action

There was much to admire in Sunderland's attacking play on Saturday but one of the many significant performances may actually have come from defence.

Tuesday, 27th July 2021, 12:00 pm

The Black Cats are still very much in pursuit of a number of transfer targets at full-backs, and have been in talks with Exeter City and Nottingham Forest regarding Josh Key and Jordan Gabriel.

The club are prepared to sanction a significant investment for either of those young players, should talks develop in a positive manner on either front.

At left back they also need at least one addition, providing Denver Hume does indeed agree to a new deal.

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Sunderland head coach Lee Johnson

In the interim, and with Lee Johnson eager to move Luke O'Nien to midfield on his return to the side, it fell to Dan Neil to step into a most unfamiliar role.

It was, unsurprisingly, something of a baptism of fire.

With Jack Diamond high up the pitch in front of him, Neil had a lot of defensive responsibility and that pressure, at least initially, seeped into one or two unusually slack passes.

The second half was an entirely different story.

Sunderland youngster Dan Neil

Neil stepped into countless attacks, moving the ball quickly and precisely.

As Johnson rang the changes he returned to a midfield role and the confidence gained from growing into his previous brief was obvious.

The 19-year-old excelled, and his head coach watched on approvingly.

For both Neil and Carl Winchester, who scored from the other flank, their performances out of position improved their chances of being in a more natural role when the league campaign begins.

"I thought he was excellent today," Johnson said.

"For me that was his best game, certainly that I've seen.

"The bit I liked about him was the variation of touches that he showed. One criticism that I've had, and it's the same with Carl Winchester, is that they can take too many touches.

That can lead to you being physically drained but more importantly it can make you quite easy to read and to mark.

"Today Dan absolutely had that blend, and Winchetser, those little one, two touches round the corner, it's a dying art that.

"You see Corry Evans on a different level mentally in terms of those little touches that he plays, and Grant Leadbitter was the same.

"Winchester has got that in his locker, I think, and he's also got that running power where he can drive through and you saw that four the third goal."

Early in pre-season Johnson had suggested that his plan was not to loan Neil out, even if he had some concerns over a lack of game time.

Given the pace of Neil's development, that stance seems to have been strengthened.

After that Harrogate win, Johnson was asked how he saw Neil's position with the squad developing over the coming weeks.

"I'm just on him, to be honest, but in a nice way," he said.

"That's my duty of care. At times you're digging them out but you've got to do everything to make sure they understand the idea.

"In the end, the good ones like Dan Neil take it in and wrap around it, and come out better.

"I don't think this will be a short-term, pre-season thing with Dan, if you know what I mean.

"I think he's ready, ready to be involved.

"The question is always how many games are they going to play. The reason he's played so well today is because he's been playing so many games recently and that is such a key part of it. A young player probably needs 25 games over the course of a season to develop.

"He can't do anymore than he has," Johnson added, significantly.

"I asked him in the summer to work on his explosive power and not worry so much about lung capacity, which he's done and you can see that.

"The analysis work we've done, he's learning and implementing.

"He's got good footballers around him and that helps.

"He's ready. A good size, and loves Sunderland more than anybody I think.

"I'm really happy with him."

That point, of Neil's love for the club, is a significant one.

Part of the excitement that came with Neil's breakthrough during the last pre-season campaign was, for sure, the ease with which he seemed to step into senior football.

But equal to that was the way he had raised eyebrows with his response when Premier League academies had begun to circle.

At a time when Sunderland were proving incapable of retaining their best young players, Neil emphatically rebuffed any advances and made clear he was interested in nothing other than breaking through into the senior team on Wearside.

One of the highlights of the pre-season campaign so far has been Neil's delight, and indeed surprise, at being handed the armband for the opening game at Spennymoor Town.

That push for regular minutes is an ongoing journey but in Johnson he has a manager who has no doubts at all about his long-term potential.

The head coach has compared him with Josh Brownhill, now thriving in the Premier League after his successful spell at Bristol City.

The expectation at this stage is that Neil's first chances to impress in competitive football this season is going to come in the League Cup and Papa John's Trophy.

With another addition in central midfield likely before the transfer window shuts, competition for places is going to be intense.

Neil has time on his side, but with every passing game it looks like this talented player is about to really announce his arrival.

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