Roy Keane would have been BOX OFFICE but Alex Neil has proved to be the right choice as manager, says Sunderland legend Niall Quinn – as the Mackems try to FINALLY get out of League One after four agonising years in Wembley final with Wycombe
- Sunderland play Wycombe in the League One play-off final on Saturday
- It’s been another typically dramatic season at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light
- Lee Johnson was fired in January and it looked like Roy Keane would return
- But Keane couldn’t agree terms and Alex Neil took on the pressurised job
- Club legend Niall Quinn believes Neil has handled the expectations superbly
Niall Quinn reclines and ponders a sliding doors moment in yet another season of classic Sunderland drama.
Back in February, a certain Roy Keane looked set for a sensational return to the Stadium of Light dugout. It was a story that sent shockwaves reverberating through the club and the city.
Sunderland’s situation was hardly dreadful when Lee Johnson was sacked after a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Bolton – they were third in League One, after all – but the expectation was always that the Black Cats would be purring towards promotion.
Niall Quinn (left) was the chairman who appointed Roy Keane (right) as Sunderland manager in 2006 – Keane almost returned to the Stadium of Light back in February
But instead Alex Neil got the job and has steered the Black Cats into the play-off final
‘Roy is box office and always has been,’ says Quinn, who it’s fair to say hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with his former Republic of Ireland team-mate despite being the chairman who brought him to Sunderland the first time round in 2006.
‘But he’s doing great at punditry. That might be a little easier than dealing with chairmen who maybe aren’t giving him enough money and stuff.
‘He was great for me, I will never say anything other than that. Great for the club, for the city, for the players.
‘There was a lovely moment there in that whole era, a lovely period of time when Sunderland were proud. He didn’t just turn the club around but the city around.
‘He brought belief back into the air. Fans were again looking for a magic potion to get this thing back on track and perhaps didn’t expect it to be this good under Alex Neil.’
Which jolts us back into reality. Keane didn’t agree terms on a second stint at Sunderland in February and the club moved for Scottish manager Neil instead.
Sunderland celebrate the goal by Patrick Roberts that overcame Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off semi-final and took them back to Wembley
Club legend Quinn poses with the League One play-off trophy ahead of Sunderland’s match against Wycombe at Wembley in Saturday
Sunderland vs Wycombe Wanderers
League One Play-off final
Saturday; kick-off 3pm
Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football
We’ll never know if Keane, who returned Sunderland to the Premier League in 2007, would have taken them up again but Neil has steered the club to within 90 minutes of a Championship return after a purgatorial four years in the third tier.
Sunderland take on Wycombe Wanderers in Saturday’s play-off final at Wembley.
Club legend Quinn has been thoroughly impressed not only by results on the field – Sunderland enter the final unbeaten in 15 – but in managing colossal expectations at a club that averages crowds of over 30,000 and will take 45,000 to Wembley.
‘I feel like the demons of the past are not even in the air for this team because the manager has so calmly dealt with that type of expectation when things get good,’ says Quinn.
‘Keeping the guys focused, keeping them on message, keeping them zoned in on what they’ve got to do – it’s been phenomenal. Now they just have to do it for one more game, block out all the other issues.
‘He leads by example on that. His interviews straight after the semi-finals [a 2-1 aggregate win over another huge club, Sheffield Wednesday], I really like what Alex Neil had to say in the immediate aftermath of getting to Wembley.
‘He was calm, collected and understood probably in his responses that hype would have built as it has in the past.
Keane celebrates after taking Sunderland up into the Premier League back in 2007
Patrick Roberts scored the decisive goal to settle the semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday
‘I feel he has managed great on the training ground and on the touchline, he’s picked the right team, he’s got a sense of belief in there and he has dealt with the expectations really, really well.’
For many football fans around the world, their main reference point on Sunderland is the excellent Netflix series that everyone binge watched during the Covid lockdowns.
The second series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die features two Wembley heartaches from the 2018-19 season – defeat on penalties to Portsmouth in the EFL Trophy final and then 94th-minute dejection in the League One play-off final against Charlton.
The programme perfectly encapsulated the agonies of being a Sunderland fan but Quinn says he wouldn’t have allowed the cameras in as chairman.
‘As good as it is for the marketing side and the world knows about your club, it can be very harsh on individuals at the top,’ he says.
Sunderland fans celebrate their passage to Wembley with 45,000 heading down to London
‘They zone in and pinpoint moments of tension and pain, and overelaborate on that. A lot of the good work that people behind the scenes at a football club do just doesn’t make the cut.
‘It’s the drama that makes the programme what it is and that’s a double-edged sword and people fall on the other side of it.
‘It’s very hard to run a football club anyway, you know things aren’t right, but to have everyone gawping in, that is tough. So I admire them for doing it in some way, but I certainly wouldn’t have done it.
‘The best thing about the documentary is that the world knows what this football club means to its fans. I’m thrilled that the world knows the fans are what they are.’
But how will they be feeling come Saturday night?
Niall Quinn was speaking on behalf of the EFL ahead of the Sky Bet League One play-off final on 21st May at Wembley Stadium
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