ON THE ROAD: Sunderland are moving in the right direction with or without Alex Neil

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Nearly 40,000 people were at the Stadium of Light — but not the one who mattered. Not the hero on Wearside, the man described as a ‘Godsend’ just four days ago.

Not the one who took them out of the doldrums of the third tier of English football after four years there, the darkest days in this club’s proud history. 

Not the one who created a hard-to-beat team filled with exciting young talent, which privately had eyes not just on Championship survival but a good push for the top six.

Alex Neil was 121 miles west at Ewood Park, as his new side Stoke showed decent foundations in a 1-0 win in Blackburn. Funnily enough, going in the opposite direction, former Rovers boss Tony Mowbray will replace Neil on Wearside. More on that later.

Alex Neil watched on at Ewood Park as his new side ran out 1-0 winners against Blackburn

Alex Neil watched on at Ewood Park as his new side ran out 1-0 winners against Blackburn 

‘How did we get in this mess again?’ one fan asked on Saturday. ‘I booked my train up two days before and was buzzing, I’ve not been excited for a Sunderland game like that in years. Now we’ve been ditched and getting Tony f****** Mowbray!’

It’s perhaps not the doomsday scenario some fans suggest, but it is still nearing disastrous for a club who were finally looking up after a good decade of decay on and off the field. Indeed, when this longer-read feature was planned, one pictured a feelgood theme, as the comedy show had finally departed Sunderland.

‘It’s the Sunderland circus, isn’t it?’ says another fan, noting the succession of bad decisions at board level and by managers before Neil and new owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus came along.

At times it felt like the purgatory to the third tier was at risk of becoming a permanent decline, akin to the fate of many big clubs who have fallen away and never returned. Sunderland ’Til I Die, the Netflix fly-on-the-wall docuseries, started to feel like a soap opera with repeated, scarcely believable storylines.

The Stadium of Light was raucous on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland deserved to beat promotion favourites Norwich

The Stadium of Light was raucous on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland deserved to beat promotion favourites Norwich 

So, as many will ask, why did Neil leave a club where he was idolised — and in the play-offs at the time — to join Stoke, who have finished 16th, 15th, 14th and 14th in their last four seasons?

It is understood the Potters’ wealthy owners, led by Denise Coates’ bet365 fortunes, offered to double Neil’s salary, with huge incentivised bonuses. 

He never moved his family to the North East — they are still based near Preston, his former club, and it is also believed Neil was at odds with the board over transfer policy.

He believes the key to success at this level is experienced players, evidenced by his Norwich and Hamilton Academical sides who won promotion with an average age in their late 20s. Sunderland have signed 15 players in the last two transfer windows. 

All but two — Jermain Defoe on a free, who is now retired, and Danny Batth —are 24 or younger.

‘I can’t knock on the door any more — there’s probably no door there because I’ve pretty much bust it down,’ said Neil two weeks ago, a clear message that he and the board were not aligned.

He also had just a 12-month rolling contract, with some fans angered that the board did not offer him a big-money deal when he won promotion at Wembley.

Alex Neil's departure will hurt Sunderland fans but they know the club has had harder times

Alex Neil’s departure will hurt Sunderland fans but they know the club has had harder times 

Former Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray is a safe pair of hands and is a sensible appointment

Former Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray is a safe pair of hands and is a sensible appointment

So, the signs were there. But as a fan put it: ‘Whoever is in that dugout, we will be here. Through the good times and the bad, the club and the fans are constant.’

And what a noise they made. The players, said to be in a state of shock at the manager’s departure, reacted well as a raucous and febrile Stadium of Light roared them on.

They didn’t have quite enough to beat promotion favourites Norwich, despite being the better team and hitting the post, bar and seeing Grant Hanley block two shots on the line. Josh Sargent scored for the Canaries in a big win for Dean Smith’s side.

It was fitting when fans sang a rendition of Three Little Birds by Bob Marley. Every little thing will be all right. Indeed, some of the reasons Neil left can be turned into positives. 

Sunderland won’t give him a pay rise? Louis- Dreyfus is trying to turn them into an economically sustainable club. Too many young players? This is an exciting squad with a bright future.

Fans left the stadium gutted that they could not beat a side who were a Premier League outfit last term. Sunderland, don’t forget, lost 6-0 at Bolton just seven months ago. The club which lost more than £250million across 15 years is slowly being repaired.

Josh Sargent's late goal for Norwich ensured an important win away at Sunderland

Josh Sargent’s late goal for Norwich ensured an important win away at Sunderland

Mowbray is far from the fans’ favourite candidate and understandably so. Sean Dyche was an early frontrunner for the job but it was unlikely he would relocate and, after doing well at Burnley, would fancy himself for a top-flight role. 

Mowbray is hardly exciting or adventurous but he is not a disaster and will stabilise the club at this level and build solid foundations.

Louis-Dreyfus, son of the French billionaire who owned Ligue 1 giants Marseille, was not born when the Stadium of Light opened in 1997. The grand arena was opened under the promise of it being ‘a stage, a platform for success’. 

It hosted 15 seasons of Premier League football, before a downward spiral which is only now in reverse.

So although Neil’s exit might feel tough to take, this club is only moving in one direction again and the Stadium of Light will soon see brighter days.

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