Alex Neil said Sunderland’s promotion to the Championship is “the first step” towards where they want to be after their play-off victory over Wycombe at Wembley.
Neil, who only took over at the Stadium of Light in February, led the Black Cats back to the second tier after a four-year absence with a 2-0 win in the League One play-off final, through goals in either half from Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart.
Sunderland were only relegated from the Premier League in 2017 after a miserable season under David Moyes, and the 40-year-old made clear his intentions of returning the club to the top flight after the game.
“I’m buzzing for them, and the fans. This club shouldn’t be where it is, and this is the first step towards getting us back where we want to be,” he told Sky Sports.
“I thought we deserved to win. Wycombe have done great this season, we knew a lot of people had heavily backed us, but that’s normal for us. We coped with that really well, the lads deserve it.
“It’s a Championship club, and we aspire to be even better than that. Days like today for this club only matter if you win, but we won and that’s all that matters.
“The biggest pressure was from myself – the hierarchy, the people who own the club, that’s not what was discussed, it was, ‘How can you help us, how can you fix the things that need fixing?’
“For me, coming to a job like this in League One, I don’t want to manage in League One – I had to try to get the club out of League One, to become a Championship manager again, under a lot of pressure and scrutiny. But with a group of players like that, it’s not a problem.”
Neil also revealed his pre-match words to his players which would inspire them to a fast start at Wembley, capped with Embleton’s early strike to give them a lead they would never surrender.
“I said to the lads in the team-talk, it was about moments. Moments your life, in your career. You can have all the money in the world, play at high levels, do this, do that,” he said.
“But if you think about any key players in the course of history – Van Basten, his goal, Maradona, the goals against England, it’s moments in time that are the most important thing.
“I said to the lads today, this is your moment in time. You could be a hero today who’ll never be forgotten. For this group, this team, the individuals, they’ll be remembered and rightly so. I’m so pleased that’s the case.”
The victorious boss also sounded a word of caution for Sunderland’s expectations on their Championship return, but reiterated his own desire to play a part in the Black Cats’ development and progression back in the second tier.
He said: “There’s a lot of discussions to take place between me and the hierarchy, the owners and all that sort of stuff. I’m sure that’ll take place in the next couple of days.
“Whatever happens next happens next. But I want to be at Sunderland, be here and take it forward. There’s massive scope for us to go, but we need to understand we’re going to a new level.
“I know people will expect we’re not a Championship team, in the same way I’ve been told a million times we’re not a League One team.
“But there’s a lot of hard work that goes into that, to get you into that level. It’s really tough, there’s teams coming down with parachute payments, guys on £100,000 a week scoring 43 goals a season, it’s a tough, tough level and we just need to sit down and have a chat about what we do next.”
Phillips: An incredible feat
Former Sunderland striker Kevin Phillips said the Black Cats’ return to the Championship – having lost out in the play-offs in two of their previous three seasons in League One – was an “incredible feat” which would stop them from losing their best players this summer.
He told Sky Sports: “I am absolutely delighted and so proud. I am not from Sunderland, but have a great affiliation for them and live in the area and I know how much it means to this football club.
“Having spent four seasons in League One, the pressures and everything that comes with it, to do it this way through the play-offs is an incredible feat.
“I was lucky enough to make that trip up the stairs with Birmingham, it is an amazing feeling knowing you are going to pick up the trophy to get promotion.
“Every player to a man has been outstanding since Alex has took over. I just want to mention Lee Johnson, he did a fantastic job, took Sunderland to second place in the league. They decided to make a change, which is fine, you accept that it is football, but Alex Neil has to come in and finish the job off.
“It is [unthinkable to spend another season in League One]. It became harder and harder every year when they did not go up. I could not imagine what the consequences would be if we had not gone up, I think we already knew that financially it would have hit them very hard.
“They clearly would have lost their best players, Stewart would have probably moved on, Roberts could have, bigger clubs would have been sniffing. But they do not need to worry about that anymore. They have done the job, it was not vintage Sunderland, but they got the performance and the win and that is all that matters.”
Man of the match Alex Pritchard echoed Phillips’ support for former boss Lee Johnson, who was sacked by the club in January after a 6-0 defeat by Bolton, for his role in their promotion.
“I’ve said many times it’s been in this league for too long. We’ve had ups and downs all season, it’s been an absolute rollercoaster,” he said.
“Big thank you to Lee Johnson at the start of the season, a lot of credit to him, and now the gaffer’s come in and has been unbelievable.
“We’ve stuck together, we’ve had some tough times this year, and the fans deserve it – they’ve been incredible.”
Stewart: Opener settled us
Stewart, who has scored 26 goals for the club this season and sealed victory with their second 11 minutes from time, said Embleton’s opener inside 12 minutes settled the clear favourites in front of their 46,000 travelling support and helped them play their natural game.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, for it to end like this in the play-offs, you couldn’t have picked a better way to do it,” he told Sky Sports.
“We’re a confident group and we had to treat it right. We were excellent today and got what we deserved. It was a massive opener, Wycombe defend really well and the goal settled us down. Getting the second got us home.
“Today was the icing on the cake in a game with so much importance.”