Sunderland have to go out with ‘all guns blazing’ on final day as they pursue play-off dream

Sunderland must go out with ‘all guns blazing’ at Preston and seize their opportunity to push for a Premier League return, insists Dan Neil. The Black Cats go to Deepdale on the final day of the Championship season tomorrow knowing they will seal a top six finish if they win in Lancashire and either Middlesbrough beat Coventry, or Millwall drop points against Blackburn.

And if they secure a play-off place it will keep alive their dream of a return to the top flight via back-to-back promotions. That would be the perfect scenario for Sunderland, a reversal of the nightmare they suffered when plummeting from the top flight to League One in the space of two years.

As Sunderland have kept pace in the play-off race throughout the season, doubts have been raised about whether the club would be ready for life in the top flight or would benefit from an extra year in the second tier, but Neil dismisses any such talk, pointing out you can never be certain when the next opportunity will come. Neil said: “Initially, it was a case of, ‘Let’s just stay in the league’, but now, we’re thinking, ‘Why not? Why can’t we go up this year?’

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“When is the right time to go to the Premier League? When will you get your next opportunity? We’ve got an opportunity this year, and I think we need to go all guns blazing to try to take it. In the last three weeks, all the results have massively gone in our favour really.

“We probably couldn’t have dreamed of a better scenario really, other than beating Watford last weekend, which would have been a bit better. We’ve given ourselves every chance – we just need to go to Preston and get a win, and hopefully everything will go our way.”

That Preston game is the immediate focus for Sunderland, with a victory a prerequisite if they are to finish in the top six. “I know it’s a cliche, but there’s no point thinking about the Premier League yet,” said Neil.

“Ultimately, we need to beat Preston. If we don’t beat Preston, then there’s no point even talking about the play-offs or promotion or anything like that. We need to go and beat Preston, hopefully things go our way, and then we can look forward to the play-offs from there. It’s win or bust, isn’t it?

“If you don’t win, then you don’t have to worry about looking at the other results. We just have to do our job, and then hopefully the neighbours from just down the road [Boro] can do a job for us too.”

Sunderland climbed out of League One last season at the fourth attempt, finishing strongly and securing fifth place and a play-off place on the final day and then winning promotion at Wembley. Given the gap between League One and the Championship in terms of finance and quality, this season was widely predicted to be one of consolidation for Sunderland but they have exceeded all expectations, spending almost the entire campaign in and around the play-off places.

With a series of season-ending injuries stripping them of key players such as star striker Ross Stewart, skipper Corry Evans, and centre-backs Dan Ballard and Danny Batth, it has looked at time as though they might slip out of the play-off conversation but they have hung in there and go into the final game on the back of an eight-game unbeaten run. Neil said: “There have been so many ups and downs over the course of the season.

“We were going great, but then we had that little spell around February time, around the time of the Rotherham defeat, and that just seemed to take the wind out of everyone’s sails. I think that was point where everyone really thought, ‘Right, it’s not going to happen’.

“Then we picked up again, but when we drew the game against Huddersfield, again I think people probably thought, ‘Right, that’s it’. But then we’ve kept plugging away and we’ve just had a run where other results have gone our way.

“We’re unbeaten since the international break, we’ve picked up good points and good wins, and we’re right back in the mix now. It doesn’t feel like there’s been a lot of pressure, probably because at various stages, people have probably thought that it’s too much for us. That’s meant that we’ve been able to go out there and not really have to think about the bigger picture.”

Academy product Neil enjoyed a magnificent breakthrough season last term in League One, playing in 39 of the club’s 46 league games, and he has made the step up to the Championship with ease, with suspension acccounting for the only league game he has missed this season. Sunderland have the youngest squad in the second tier containing teenagers such as Abdoullah Ba and Jewison Bennette, 20-year-olds Edouard Michut and Amad, 21-year-olds Neil, Dennis Cirkin, Trai Hume, Joe Gelhardt, and Pierre Ekwah, along with Anthony Patterson, Jack Clarke, and Aji Alese who are all 22.

Neil said: “I’m pleased with the way the whole team has performed. For most of the lads, it’s their first season in the Championship. To be even in with a chance of getting into the play-offs at this stage is credit to all the lads and all the coaching staff.

“With having such a young group, I think we’ve all got that hunger to impress and prove that we are ready for this level, if not the level above. Experience can be good, but sometimes that bit of inexperience and hunger to prove yourself can really help at this level.”

Sunderland’s young group has been nurtured by head coach Tony Mowbray, who succeeded Alex Neil at the end of August when the Scot left to take over at Stoke City. Mowbray is a popular figure with the players, and Neil is full of praise for the trust the 59-year-old has placed in him personally, and in the team more broadly.

“He’s a lovely bloke, first and foremost,” said Neil. “He lets you play with freedom on the pitch. He has that saying of the soldiers and the artists. You’ve seen the artists this year, like Amad, Patrick Roberts, Jack Clarke, who have absolutely flourished in his system.

“That’s because he gives them that freedom to go and express themselves. Then at the other end of it, you’ve got people like Danny Batth, who got Player of the Season because he’s had a great year. I think as a team, we’ve had a fantastic year this year, and the gaffer has been a big reason for that. The trust that he’s placed in me has been phenomenal, I can’t thank him enough.

“Obviously, with Corry getting injured and the lack of experience in midfield, because that got sprung upon me, it’s developed me into a different type of player, or at least added another string to my bow. Off the pitch, I think I’ve matured a bit, and part of that is down to the manager keeping faith in me and trusting me to go out there and do the job. I can’t thank him enough for that.”


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