The sudden departure of Alex Neil threatens to plunge Sunderland back into crisis | Sunderland


A penny for Jewison Bennette’s thoughts last Friday morning. Almost certainly still jetlagged after his 8,600km trek from Costa Rica to northeast England, the 18-year-old winger arrived at the Academy of Light training ground to meet his new team-mates after signing a four-year deal with playing for Sunderland the day before. “When you see the Stadium of Light and this huge fan base, it makes you want to work hard day to day and give your all,” he said after signing his contract.

Bennette’s new manager could hardly have been more eloquent in his praise of a player who became the youngest footballer to represent Costa Rica when he came on as a substitute against El Salvador a year ago, but he preached caution. “We have to be patient and give him time to acclimatize to a new country and learn the language,” said Alex Neil. “He’s definitely one for the future.”


While that may well be the case, one of Bennette’s first actions as a Sunderland player was to bid farewell to the man who had signed him less than 24 hours previously. In a turn of events that all but cemented Sunderland’s status as the English league’s top ‘gossip’ club, Netflix cameras returned to the Academy of Light on Friday morning to begin recording a third series of the acclaimed documentary series Sunderland ‘Til I Die and we can only hope they were rolling as a seemingly emotional Neil told his shocked players he was abandoning them to go manage Stoke.

While Bennette could be one for Sunderland’s future, it has become abundantly clear that the manager who guided them to the Championship after a four-year purgatory in Ligue 1 was certainly not. Even Sunderland fans will come to see the fun side once their audible anger, clearly expressed in Saturday’s defeat to Norwich City, subsides.

On a day when their upwardly mobile club shed a record breaking new striker Alexander Isak, Newcastle fans were certainly in quite understandable paroxysms of joy brought on by the latest setback that has befallen their bitter but increasingly bitter rivals. more insignificant. If, as Jürgen Klopp recently suggested, the evil juju that pervades Liverpool’s training ground is caused by the presence of a witch, the Academy of Light must be occupied by an entire coven.

Only Sunderland could host the Netflix cameras behind the scenes for two seasons in which they earned back-to-back relegations, only to be conspicuously absent for the following campaign in which they finally earned promotion in the playoffs. Only Sunderland could authorize their return to the the same day the club’s best manager in years has dropped the bombshell he was leaving to go and manage a side his team had beaten six days before.

“Why is it never us?” asked Michelle Barraclough in tears, as she watched jubilant Charlton fans celebrate their side’s late assault on her beloved Black Cats in the League One playoff final in one of the scenes. the most poignant of Sunderland’s latest series ‘Til I Die. “Why is it always us? she might have asked on Friday morning.

Jewison Bennette joined The Academy of Light just before manager Alex Neil announced he was leaving the club. Photo: Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC/Getty Images

After years of boardroom antics and often comedic slapstick ownership in which a dozen full-time or interim managers failed to get a tune out of often substandard or underperforming players, Barraclough and his fellow Sunderland fans could have been forgiven for thinking they had finally caught a long-awaited breakup with Neil’s arrival last February. In fact, they did, as the Scot rallied and galvanized a struggling side to secure Championship promotion through the playoffs last season. However, his abrupt departure despite encouraging signs at the start of the season once again threatened to plunge the club into crisis.

The reasons for what many consider at best a sidestep for Neil remain both clear and obscure. While we can only speculate about life behind the scenes at Sunderland, all the available evidence suggests the club have moved away from their days as arguably the greatest lost cause in English football. Neil had signed seven players over the summer and was set to sign another promising teenager from Paris Saint-Germain, but had recently expressed frustration at his inability to attract new faces.

“I can’t knock on the door anymore – there’s probably no door there anymore because I practically kicked it down,” he said. “Listen, we need reinforcements, and we know that.”

Now that Neil has left to join a club that has been forced to drastically cut spending in the transfer market to comply with English Football League Financial Fair Play rules, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the primary motivation for his move to what is arguably a small club is his own personal enrichment.

Coming out of his office, with his door smashed on the hinges, to speak to Sky Sports on Saturday, Sunderland technical director Kristjaan Speakman revealed Neil was on a slippery contract, the terms of which had been significantly improved following Sunderland. promotion. Speakman also said Neil was offered even more generous terms as soon as the club hierarchy became aware of his and Stoke City’s mutual interest.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that will be enough for him to stay,” he said. Sunderland ’til I die, as the song from which the documentary takes its name goes. Or at least until I get a better deal from Stoke.