Transfer interest, England & captaincy: Everything Sunderland boss said on Dan Neil's bright future and next steps

The speed with which this was done took everyone a little by surprise.

Friday, 29th October 2021, 12:30 pm

Seven days previous Lee Johnson had told The Echo a new deal for Dan Neil would be wise, and was no doubt on the agenda for the club.

A week later he sat in the same media room and reflected on a new long-term contract, signed, sealed and delivered.

It tells you how highly he is rated behind the scenes, and perhaps even more significantly, the extent to which Neil is determined to help put the club nearer where it belongs.

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"I think that picture sums it up with Dan Neil, where he's sat in the crowd [at the League Cup final v Manchester City] starry-eyed," Johnson said.

"Now he's living that dream and that's what we want.

"You can see and feel the passion that he has for Sunderland when you coach him, and as I've said numerous times he's a great kid, and a really good footballer with bags of potential.

"He's technically a very good player and you can see that in the way he manipulates the ball.

Dan Neil celebrates his first goal at the Stadium of Light earlier this season

"I think he's added another dimension to his game, we call it the drop and drive, receive the ball and commit players.

"He has a lovely dribbling technique, a little bit like a young Gascoigne in the way he hops and drags it at the same time. It makes it so hard for a defender to commit, because the minute you do he can go past you.

"I do expect to see a couple of slalom-type goals from him this season, because he gets in those positions.

"There was a lovely little gliding run at QPR where he just didn't quite get the finish."

Johnson's task is to nurture that talent, and remain mindful of the bigger picture.

It's a job he has preivously said is made easier by Neil's obvious humility.

The 19-year-old has been virtually ever-present this season but Johnson is watching closely for any telltale signs of fatigue.

"We've already done it where he had a little two-game spell out," he said.

"You can sense it.

"We've been going through it a little bit with Ellis Taylor, who is really pushing hard at first-team training.

"It looked like he was waning a little bit, so we gave him a rest and he was absolutely fantastic for the U23s against South Shields the other night.

"It's always a balance between the eye, feel, the data, GPS, everything comes together to tell you the story."

In the longer run, Johnson says 'the world is his oyster'.

The head coach believes the resumption of a youth international career that was knocked off course by major injury must be close, and he has no qualms admitting that in Neil he sees a potential future leader.

That is stock could continue to rise significantly is reflected in the terms of his contract.

"Every contract is taken on its individual merit," Johnson said.

"This contract is an extension of Dan's learning and there will of course be progression within that as he progresses, and rightly so.

"He's done extremely well and I think he appreciates it even more as a young player because of the injury he had as a young player, which meant he had a long time out.

"He saw a lot of his friends that he was in the same England pathway with really progress and crack on.

"We're really happy with him and this contract, and I think it proves our intention as a club is for him to grow into an indispensiable member of the squad.

"I would think he's very close to a call up.

"If I was an England representative, and they're excellent at monitoring the lads who are playing, personally I'd be selecting him for one of the squads.

"We have to develop leaders everywhere, all round the club," he added.

"Dan Neil absolutely fits the bill as a future captain of this club.

"He's signed a long-term contract, has never wavered despite the interest there's been in him and is still there in him, as we know.

"The world is his oyster in terms of the next steps."

For supporters, the move on the club's part is also reassuring.

Following a similar extension for Elliot Embleton earlier this season it suggests that a more pro-active approach to contract management is now in place.

Perhaps even more importantly, it demonstrates that academy players now genuinely believe there is a realistic pathway to the first team and that their talent will be trusted.

"We have clarity, starting from the top," Johnson said.

"We're in constant communication with Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril in terms of all the players.

"You know you've nailed it when you're doing your summer business in January, and your January business three or four weeks before the start of the window.

"There is a plan and we make sure that the squad has got a nice balance of youth, players in their prime and players moving into that.

"The fans do have a massive part to play, as well.

"It's so powerful when the players feel appreciated. It keeps us in games at times and it wins us games at times, and that's what we have to do everything we possibly can to protect."

The key benefit for all parties is that now, the attention can turn quickly to crucial League One tests rapidly approaching.

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