Less than 12 months ago, Dan Neil was still yet to make his League debut, having featured exclusively in the Papa John’s Trophy at senior level.
Fast forward to the present day, he has been named EFL Young Player of the Month following a string of impressive performances in December, strengthening his status as a key figure in Sunderland’s push for promotion from Sky Bet League One.
“There are a lot of talented young players throughout the EFL, so to be recognised as one of the better ones during the December month is a good achievement,” said Neil.
“A lot of players have made the step from the EFL to the Premier League and many of them have won a Young Player of the Month award early in their careers. That’s the goal for us at Sunderland, to get up the divisions as fast as possible, so hopefully I can help us do that by winning these types of awards and continuing to play as I have.”
The 20-year-old midfielder appeared six times in the league for the Black Cats during the festive month, contributing to four wins and two draws as Lee Johnson’s side recovered from an Autumn dip in form to surge up the table, completing 2021 in top spot.
Two 5-0 victories over Morecambe and Sheffield Wednesday caught the eye, while a hard-fought three points against promotion rivals Plymouth Argyle was a key result in the unbeaten streak.
Neil continued: “It was a busy month and I think we played more than anyone else throughout the country. I got the assist for the equaliser away at Ipswich, I scored against Plymouth and I had a decent game against Doncaster, which was live on Sky Sports, so it was a good month overall.
“When you look at the top 10, even the teams that aren’t in the promotion spots, like Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich, they’re massive Clubs with very good squads and it’s very tight.
“I think it’s going to go right down to the wire and that’s why every game is just as important as the next. We know Wigan have got games in hand, but we need to keep taking it game by game and make sure we get three points as often as possible.
“We started the season really well and then hit a little bit of a bad patch of form against some good teams. We’ve got such a young squad full of potential and having got through that, I think it’s made me as an individual and us as a team a lot stronger.”
The highly-rated youngster has quickly established himself as an important player for the Wearsiders, accumulating eight assists and three goals in 32 appearances across four competitions this season, and even captaining the side in the Papa John’s Trophy against Lincoln City in October.
“The Papa John’s Trophy games last season gave me my first taste of proper first-team football and the pace and physicality of it,” he said. “When the season ended, I knew a lot of players were being released, so I just worked hard to build myself up physically and then I had a good pre-season.
“I didn’t think I would be as involved as I have been, but with injuries and suspensions, plus the fact I feel I’ve been playing well, I’ve been able to keep my place in the side. I can’t rest on my laurels now; I’ve got to keep improving and hopefully help us achieve the end goal of promotion at the end of the season.
“It was an honour to captain the lads in the Papa John’s and I grabbed a goal as well while I was at it. We had a pretty young team; I think I was one of the more senior players on the night even though I’ve not played too much. I’d love to see myself as a captain in the future, but I’ve still got a lot of things that I need to improve both on and off the pitch in order to get that title.”
The boyhood Mackem, who joined the Club at the age of seven, has already built a strong affinity with the fans, which he admits is still taking some getting used to.
“The first time I really noticed it was the Plymouth game,” he reveals. “After I’d scored, the ball went out of play, and I think there was an injury, and the fans were singing my name. I was trying not to smile and keep a straight face, but I think one squeezed out.
“It’s surreal, but probably more so for my parents. They just can’t get their heads around it when they’re sat in the crowd and people are singing their son’s name.
“Whenever a local lad comes through the Academy, they connect with the fans straight away. I was a fan and went to watch every week, seeing players like Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford playing for Sunderland, their local Club, in the Premier League.
“You’ve seen Pickford move on and saving penalties in the World Cup and Euros, and Henderson has lifted the Champions League and Premier League. It does motivate you and you say to yourself that you want to be the next one that goes on to achieve those things. Hopefully, if I keep my focus and keep working hard, that’ll happen one day.”
England Under-20 international Neil, who has earned comparisons with Paul Gascoigne from his Manager, could easily have drifted out of the game as a 14-year-old after suffering with osteochondritis. But having overcome that setback, he’s now living his dream at the Stadium of Light and setting himself lofty goals to achieve.
“The injury knocked me out for just under two years, from 14 to 16,” he added. “Ever since I came back and I started full-time, it was my goal to break into the first team.
“My first season full-time was the first season in League One and ever since I came in, I’ve always thought that I want to be part of the squad that gets us back up to the Championship and then hopefully to the Premier League. I’m just thankful that I’m in the squad now and it looks like we’ve got a fighting chance to get out of this league.
“We’ve chopped and changed a lot over the years and there’s not really been a philosophy imprinted on the Club. Now, there is a proper playing style being implemented here and off the pitch, the standards are high around the place. It’s very positive around the Club at the moment and hopefully some stability can carry us to success.”