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ON THE ROAD: Sunderland is heading 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 that mattered. Not the hero on Wearside, the man described as a “Godsend” four days ago.

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

Not the one who created a hard-to-beat team full of exciting young talent, who, in private, had an eye not only for championship survival, but also for a good push for the top six.

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

Alex Neil watched at Ewood Park as his new side won 1-0 against Blackburn

“How did we end up in this mess again?” a fan asked Saturday. “I booked my train two days before and it was buzzing, I haven’t been this excited about a Sunderland game like this in years. Now we’re dumped and we get Tony f****** Mowbray!’

It may not be the doomsday scenario some fans are suggesting, but it’s still almost disastrous for a club that finally looked up after a good decade of decline on and off the pitch. Indeed, when this longer-readable feature was planned, a feel-good theme was suggested as the comedy show had finally left Sunderland.

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

At times it felt like purgatory to the third tier was at risk of becoming a permanent setback, similar to the fate of many big clubs that have fallen away and never returned. Sunderland ‘Til I Die, the Netflix fly-on-the-wall docuseries, was beginning to feel like a soap opera with repeated, barely believable storylines.

The Stadium of Light was rough on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland deserved to beat promotion favorites Norwich

The Stadium of Light was rough on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland deserved to beat promotion favorites Norwich

So, as many will ask, why did Neil leave a club he was idolized – 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 known that the wealthy owners of the Potters, led by Denise Coates’ bet365 fortunes, offered to double Neil’s salary, with huge bonuses.

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

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

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

“I can’t knock on the door anymore – there probably isn’t a door there because I pretty much broke it down,” Neil said two weeks ago, sending a clear message that he and the board were not on the same page.

He was also only on a 12-month ongoing contract, with some fans angered that the board didn’t 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 a harder time

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

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

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

So the signs were there. But as one fan put it, ‘Whoever’s in that dugout, we’ll be there. Through good and bad times, the club and the fans are constant.’

And what a noise they made. The players, reportedly in shock at the manager’s departure, reacted well as a raucous and feverish Stadium of Light cheered them on.

They didn’t have enough to beat promotion favorites Norwich, despite being the better team and the post, crossbar and the sight of Grant Hanley blocking 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 Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. Every little thing will be fine. Indeed, some of the reasons Neil left can be turned into a positive one.

Sunderland won’t give him a raise? Louis-Dreyfus tries to make it an economically sustainable club. Too many young players? This is an exciting team with a bright future.

Fans left the stadium upset that they couldn’t beat a side that played in the Premier League last season. Sunderland, remember, lost 6-0 to Bolton just seven months ago. The club that lost more than £250 million in 15 years is slowly recovering.

Josh Sargent's late goal for Norwich secured an important win over Sunderland

Josh Sargent’s late goal for Norwich secured an important win over Sunderland

Mowbray is far from the fans’ favorite candidate and understandably so. Sean Dyche was an early frontrunner for the job but was unlikely to move and, having done well at Burnley, see himself in a top role.

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

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 with the promise that it would be ‘a stage, a platform for success’.

It hosted 15 seasons of Premier League football, before a downward spiral that has only now been reversed.

So while Neil’s departure may be hard to accept, this club is only moving in one direction again and the Stadium of Light will soon see better days.

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