What Alex Neil told Sunderland’s Dan Neil during midfielder's frustrating spell last season

When Dan Neil dropped out of Sunderland’s starting XI just under a year ago, the midfielder admits there were some key lessons which had to be learnt.

The Black Cats academy graduate had been enjoying a breakthrough season in League One and played regularly in the first half of the 2021/22 campaign.

Yet, following Alex Neil’s appointment in February, Neil would start just three of 18 games for the remainder of the campaign, while he was an unused substitute for the play-off final win over Wycombe at Wembley.

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Fast forward to the present day and Neil has been named in Sunderland’s starting XI for 25 of their 28 Championship fixtures this season, while the 21-year-old’s performances in recent weeks have particularly caught the eye.

Dan Neil playing for Sunderland against Middlesbrough. Picture by FRANK REID

“I talk to my dad about my career and how things are going," Neil said openly following Sunderland’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light. "I always go back to last year when Alex Neil came in and I got taken out of the team. I was taken out of the team because my defensive stuff wasn’t good enough.

"It was nothing to do with what I was doing on the ball, going forward, or technical things or anything like that. It was second balls, winning duels, stuff like that.

“I knew, going into the off season, that I had to improve on that. I focused more on that than any of the on-the-ball stuff. It made a difference.

"There was even a bit in the season where I was thinking, ‘My defensive side’s actually better than my attacking side now and I need to level it back out again’. I think I’m starting to do that now, and get the balance of it about right. Because I’ve worked on that defensive side, I feel as though I can do both roles. It’s almost like a mentality switch.”

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When reflecting on last season’s frustrations when he wasn’t playing regularly, Neil added: “I’m not going to lie, at first I wasn’t very happy because I got taken out of the team and I felt like just as everything had gone from zero to 100 very, very fast, everything then went from 100 to zero even faster.

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“I was thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ I did have chats with the old manager, Alex Neil, and he basically just told me straight. He said, ‘This is what you need to improve on if you want to play in my team’.

"Obviously, I want to play for Sunderland and he was the manager at that point, so I did want to play in his team. I had to make sure that I improved on those things.

"I probably knew that I wasn’t really going to get back in at the end of last season because we were doing so well and on such a good run, so my mind almost changed to the off season, thinking, ‘Right, what can I do to make sure that when it comes to the first game of next season, I’m on that team sheet’.”

Neil’s work during that period has certainly paid off and, at 21, there’s plenty of time for him to get even better.