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Alex Neil on why he is not bothered about popularity, football’s sideshow or ‘Jimmy from Cleadon’

Alex Neil has no time for the ‘sideshow’ surrounding management – insisting that all fans care about is winning. Neil leads Sunderland into the play-offs tonight, with his side set to take on Sheffield Wednesday at the Stadium of Light in the first leg of their semi-final, with the winners going through to face either MK Dons or Wycombe in the final at Wembley later this month.

Since taking over in February with the club heading in the wrong direction in the table and in danger of missing out on the play-offs, Neil has steadied the ship and steered the Black Cats into a fifth-place finish – in the process earning the respect of supporters, many of whom were mutinous in the period just before he took the reins. Neil knows that opinion can shift quickly, however, and that ultimately he must produce results.

“I’m not bothered about being popular,” he said. “In terms of popularity, some people will not like you because of the way you look, or because of how you say a certain word a certain way, or just because they don’t like you!

READMORE: Sunderland’s strength of character crucial in play-off test against Sheffield Wednesday

“Equally, there are other people who will like you because you’re in charge of their team, they understand you are working hard, and all that sort of stuff. As a manager, what you want is to be popular enough to be given time, time to make a difference.

“Whether people sing your name or not doesn’t really matter. As you’ve seen, when we win I’m not a heavy fist-pumper.

“The most important thing is winning games, simple as that, and that’s what fans care about. All the rest of it, for me, is a sideshow.

“As long as fans see out on the pitch their team is organized, working hard, and dying for the cause, that’s what they expect and that’s what I try and deliver.”

This is the third time in four seasons in League One that Sunderland have ended up in the play-offs, with the one year they missed out coming in 2020 when the season was curtailed due to the Covid pandemic. But while there was a sense of disappointment going into the play-offs in 2019, when Sunderland blew their chances of automatic promotion in the final week of the season, and in 2021, when they stumbled over the line with a run of just one win in their final nine games, this time the mood is different with the Black Cats ending the campaign with a 13-game unbeaten run.

Neil acknowledges the difference, but says he tries to block out such external factors and concentrate on the job in hand. “I don’t really see too much about the sentiment amongst fans,” he said.

“Things are filtered in to me but I’m not one of those who looks at what, I dunno, Jimmy from Cleadon thinks of how we set up. My focus is on getting the team ready, having a clear mind, and understand we are trying to do.

“We do a lot of work behind the scenes and that’s what makes me confident, because we do everything to make sure they are ready. We leave nothing to chance.”

Sunderland’s League One campaign was full of twists and turns but Neil says everything that went before now counts for nothing as all it has done is earn the Black Cats a one-in-four chance in a knock-out competition. He said: “The way I look at it is that we are in a knock-out competition now.

“All the other games prior to this point were just to get us into this place. Are we pleased to be in the play-offs? Of course we’re pleased – the alternative is that we weren’t in the play-offs.

“Everything before now is gone, done, there’s nothing we can do about it. The next bit is the bit that matters.”

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