Dan Neil is determined to put his Wembley pain to one side after missing out for the second season in a row as Sunderland won promotion back to the Championship. The Black Cats academy graduate played in every round of their route to the Papa Johns’ Trophy triumph but was dropped for the final against Tranmere Rovers.
History does have a habit of repeating itself and unfortunately for Neil, he was named among the substitutes for the recent Wembley showpiece against Wycombe. However, the Sunderland midfielder has opened up on putting any hard feelings to one side after a roller coaster season.
Neil was among the Black Cats players who played the most minutes last season and he is determined to look at the positives. “It was a rollercoaster season,” he told Chronicle Live. “I feel like it went from zero to one-hundred very fast for me personally.
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“I took a lot of things from it and a lot of things I need to improve on. It was a good learning experience and hopefully, it has put me in better stead for this year and I can use the experiences and improve on last year .”
The Sunderland midfielder was one of the youngsters taken out of the firing line after Alex Neil inherited a young squad, low on confidence and struggling on the pitch.
“Obviously as a player you’re never going to say that you don’t want to play, because I did want to play every single game,” said Neil.
“Looking back at it now, it was probably a good bit of man management. At the end of the day the gaffer got the goal that everybody wanted and that was to get promoted.
“That little break gave me time to reflect on what was a good season, but also a season that could have been improved. Hopefully I can use that going into this season and improve on it.”
The head coach’s decision to drop the youngster to take him out of the firing line coincided with Sunderland’s late season upturn in form and Neil found it tough to get back into the side. “I was gutted that I couldn’t get any minutes [at Wembley]” he said.
“I played through the season and I was desperate for this team to get promoted ever since I got into the first-team set-up. So whoever was on the pitch, it didn’t matter as we got that job done.
“We did thankfully and hopefully, we can leave League One in the past and we can continue to improve and see where that takes us in the next few years.”
When asked how he was told he’d be missing out, Neil said. “We just treated it as another game so there wasn’t any different ways of telling you that you weren’t in the team. The team gets put up and you kind of know from the day before whether you are in the team or not anyway.
“I think at that point there was a pretty settled 11 and it was tough to get the shirts off them because they were playing so well. Those boys got the job done as well as the other lads throughout the full season. It was a marathon but those 11 players there did the job at Wembley and gained promotion.
“I’ve been to Wembley three times not as a player and lost all three so I know how they feel in the stands when we don’t win. I know how nervous they get from Wembley.
“I saw a lot of things when we finished in the play-offs about the Wembley curse. But it was at the start of the game when the lads lined up.
“I was sat on the bench and they started singing and you couldn’t hear yourself think. The national anthem was delayed it was unbelievable. Hopefully, we can have another one of those days.”
Neil is determined to look at the positives, he said. “Yeah, I think that’s what I looked at. Although I didn’t play in the most important games at the end of the season, I was still one who got some of the highest minutes in the squad.
“I remember in the Papa John’s, I played in every round except the final and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have because I was gutted about not playing in the final. I was determined not to let that happen again if we won the play-off final. I just looked at the positives from the season, also the negatives to see if I can improve on them going into this season.”
The Black Cats youngster was linked with a move away from Wearside in January, with Burnley one of the clubs impressed with Neil’s performances, but he insists there was nothing going to stop him from helping Sunderland get promoted.
“When I came in full time as a 16-year-old, we were in League One at the time and I was determined to get into the first team because I wanted to be part of the squad that got us promoted,” said Neil .
“So when there were rumors I wasn’t really interested because my only goal was to do everything I can personally to help the team to get this club promoted back to the Championship. And now the goal is to do as well as we can in the Championship and see where that takes us.”