Why Alex Neil had a strong warning for Sunderland as the new season quickly approaches: Phil Smith's verdict

Alex Neil has been consistent in victory and defeat.

After a comfortable win over Dundee United, Sunderland's head coach discussed the club's latest transfer breakthrough and while satisfied with Aji Alese's arrival, said that there was still a lot of work to do.

It would be, he warned, a 'long, hard, difficult season' as the club steps up to the Championship.

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"I think it will open some eyes when we get there," he added.

Sunderland boss Alex Neil

So it was no knee-jerk reaction when he said just a couple of days later, this time following a 2-0 defeat to Bradford City: “For us, as a club really, we need to have a realisation of where we currently are.

“We've got a lot of work to do in terms of bringing bodies in and equally, we have a lot of work to do on the training ground to get some of the new lads up to speed so that we can perform at our best.”

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There has, for balance, been plenty of positivity from Neil too.

This was a very disappointing night at Valley Parade but broadly speaking Sunderland's pre-season performances have been good. The core of last season's successful side have been kept together as Neil felt was crucial, and the additions to that group have been exciting ones.

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He is by and large happy with the progress of the players he is working with, particularly in terms of their fitness levels.

For all the Bradford defeat was concerning, there were some mitigating factors.

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Only a handful of those picked are likely to start against Coventry City on opening day, while the need to top up minutes across the squad meant a lot of players were operating in an unfamiliar role. There were also some U23 players operating in key positions, and not unsurprisingly they showed both talent and some inexperience across the course of the game.

What it did underline, though, is some of the reasons why Neil is urging expectations to be kept in check.

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One is for now that Sunderland's recruitment is still far from done, with the need for at least one new striker abundantly clear. While understanding the need for patience as Premier League clubs prepare to sanction departures, the head coach pointedly said there are 'a whole host' of positions where strengthening is required.

The other is that having managed for a large chunk of his career in the Championship, Neil understands acutely just how big a step up it is from League One level. To add to that, many of Sunderland's youngsters (where most of the transfer investment has been made) are inexperienced in the second tier.

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By Neil's own admission, that is exciting because who is to say that some players won't thrive? But it also, he knows, guarantees that there will be bumps in the road.

In the immediate aftermath of the win at Wembley Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman spoke of communicating strongly ahead of the new season, to underline what the club's realistic short-term aims are, which hasn't really materialised yet.

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Neil appears at the moment to be striking a balance between maintaining the feel good factor he worked so hard to build, and underlining the scale of the challenge ahead.

Last night, while no cause for major panic, showed why.