IF you’re the manager of Sunderland, then whether it’s part of your official job description or not, you effectively find yourself having to manage two inter-related, but distinctly different, things. You’re the manager of the team that plays on the pitch, but you also have to manage the various off-field elements that make the club such a captivating yet challenging beast. Ultimately, you’re judged on the former. But as plenty of managers have discovered down the years, if you don’t get the latter right, you’re almost inevitably going to end up in trouble.

Niall Quinn is one of the most popular and successful figures in Sunderland’s recent history, yet even he was forced to acknowledge the “gremlins” he felt were holding the club back. Gustavo Poyet railed against “something fundamentally wrong” within the Black Cats’ DNA, and both David Moyes and Simon Grayson seemed to struggle to dispel an air of despondent inevitability that attached itself to the club when they were in charge.

Paolo Di Canio went the other way, constantly accentuating Sunderland’s size and stature in an attempt to whip things into a frenzy. It worked for a while, before everything eventually came collapsing down around him.

If anything, the weight of external pressure has only increased during the Black Cats’ four-year spell in the third tier. Sunderland should not be in League One. I know that, you know that, each and every supporter knows that and the players that come to play for the club know it too. But it’s hard to come out and say it explicitly without coming across as either arrogant or naïve. Opponents seize on any semblance of self-entitlement and use it as a stick with which to beat Sunderland and the club’s fans.

So, what should Sunderland’s manager do? Stick out his chest and proudly exclaim his club’s superiority to all its League One rivals? Or retreat into his shell and feel the need to constantly apologise for any hint of boastfulness or swagger?

Jack Ross tended towards the former, but then found himself having to backtrack when his players struggled to perform at the Stadium of Light. Suddenly, then, the narrative became about the ‘weight of expectation’ from the stands. Phil Parkinson was much keener to play down Sunderland’s history and prestige, only for the fans to eventually turn on him when results were in keeping with his notion of Sunderland being ‘a League One club’. Lee Johnson tried a bit of both, but eventually became wrapped up in his own riddles.

All of which brings us to Alex Neil, and his own unique method of dealing with the weight of history that hangs around Sunderland’s neck. Quite simply, Neil could not care less either way.

Now, I’ve experienced plenty of managers or coaches who profess not to care about what is going on outside the dressing room, but who are actually obsessed with the minutiae of what is being discussed about their club. They claim ‘not to read the papers’, but know all the finer details of what is being debated on the supporters’ message boards. They claim not to care about past history, but are more than happy to dredge up a few memories when it suits them.

Three months into the job, and it is already clear that Neil is different. When he claims not to have any interest in Sunderland’s history, hang-ups, achievements and let-downs, he really means it. Ask him about the tactical intricacies of how he set his side up to face Sheffield Wednesday, and he will give you chapter and verse. Ask him about the emotions of trying to end four long years of hurt in League One, and he will look at you as if you have come from another planet.

As a coach who sees his sole responsibility as the work that goes on at the training ground on a daily basis and the various elements that go into preparing for and managing on a matchday, Neil has been able to divorce himself from the hullaballoo that ordinarily goes hand in hand with leading Sunderland.

Take, for example, his response to a question about the intensity of the two-week build-up to next week’s play-off final. Would he have to do anything differently? “All the things that go on in the background are lost on me,” he said. “Because I don’t see any of it.

“I literally go from my house to the training ground, I interact with about ten or 15 members of staff and my team, and then I go home again. Then I do it the next day. Then I keep doing it, and I go to games and try to win games, and then I do the same again. So, for me, all the stuff that comes with it is just a sideshow.”

From the throats of other managers, that might sound like a deflection tactic. When it comes to Neil, it is his modus operandi.

It is also the thing that might just tilt the balance in Sunderland’s favour as they return to Wembley in eight days’ time looking to claim a first play-off triumph at the seventh time of asking.

In the past, the weight of history has proved too strong to cast off, and whether they admit it or not, plenty of supporters will be heading down Wembley Way thinking, ‘Here we go again’.

Neil won’t – and you’d like to think he’ll be making sure his players won’t either. To Neil, Sunderland’s six previous play-off disappointments are about as relevant to this season’s final as the price of a pint in Covent Garden.

Whereas other managers have felt the need to at least acknowledge Sunderland’s historical record, Neil regards it as a complete irrelevance. Coach the players, pick the team, win the game. Then pick up the trophy and start to plan for next season.