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Superb Alex Neil interview: so many terrific insights

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From the Scottish second tier to Anfield away – the whirlwind story of Alex Neil at Norwich City

“Did you ever get involved in something where the feeling is just so good all the time? You move to the next bit and the next bit without any contemplation of it going wrong,” Alex Neil says. “You’ve not a worry in your body, you don’t see the negative in any situation. You just think there’s the solution, boom.”

Has British football management ever seen a trajectory like Neil’s? Consider this: on April 26, 2014, he was a 32-year-old player-coach in the Scottish Championship, with fans demanding he be sacked after losing away to Dumbarton. On May 26, 2015, he was waking up as the youngest manager in the Premier League. Before long, he was drawing at Anfield, winning at Old Trafford. “For two years the way life went was incredible,” muses Neil from his home near Preston.

Maybe his greatest feat has been staying himself — the same sharp-minded, no-frills, football-in-his-gut guy from Coatbridge, near Glasgow, despite the changing weather of his career. He didn’t set out to coach when he started his badges at 28, while undergoing rehabilitation for a hip injury, but in hindsight was made for it. He’s from a family of teachers and from his early twenties had been a captain.

He became Hamilton Academical’s player-manager after his good friend, Billy Reid (now Graham Potter’s assistant at Brighton & Hove Albion), was sacked and in his first full season — 2013-14 — led the modest Lanarkshire club into Scotland’s top flight. A spiky midfielder, he was still combining playing with coaching when Hamilton then tore through the Scottish Premiership with a fearless, high-pressing, attacking style. They won at Celtic Park for the first time since 1938 and were third when Norwich City gambled on him in January 2015. There, he rolled on, with 17 wins in 25 games to sweep the side into the Premier League.

Neil was three weeks shy of his 34th birthday when Norwich defeated Middlesbrough in the Championship play-off final and suddenly found himself in the world’s richest league — on its lowest budget. He nevertheless beat Manchester United and drew with Liverpool and Arsenal. However, Norwich tailed off, went down and Neil was dismissed.

The Premier League was a different world.The first shock was the profile it brought. “I’d walk into a room and see a player or manager I’d been watching on TV since I was a kid and they’d turn round and say, ‘Alex, how are you?’ I’d be, ‘How do you know me?’ I found that bizarre.”

Then there was the culture. “I don’t know how you feel about this but the more money there is in the game, the more it poisons things,” he says. “At Hamilton, guys play to feed their kids. I remember fining players at Hamilton a fiver for being late and they’d be gutted. You go from that to somewhere where there’s a squad initiation where you either sing a song or put a grand into the pot. The amount of lads putting a thousand pounds into the pot was incredible. I’m thinking I’d sing a whole album for a grand.”

And that was at the division’s poorest club. “The main difficulty I had — and they still have it, which is why it’s difficult for them to stay up — is the gulf in finances. Norwich are self-sustaining, which means [after promotion] there’s no money to put in initially. What they did this year, smartly, was reserve some money from their last time [in the Premier League] so they did have cash to sign players straight away.

“The narrative is you win the play-off final and get handed £200 million. Nah. The money comes in three batches and the other thing to bear in mind is after promotion your players’ wages will go up a third and you pay bonuses. Right away, before the money arrives, £25 million has just walked out the building.”

However, he loved the challenge, forbidding as it was. A 5-4 defeat by Liverpool at Carrow Road encapsulated things. Norwich were 3-1 up when a defensive mistake let in the opposition. “That’s the Premier League. One error can cost you and the minute big teams smell blood, you’re in trouble. The Premier League is the only level where you can play well and still lose regularly. Look at Brighton last season, they were good — and almost went down.

“The one I remember is going to Southampton and thinking, ‘We’ve a good chance of winning this.’ They had a young Sadio Mané on one wing, [Dusan] Tadic on the other, [Graziano] Pellè up top and I was unaware how good they were going to be — until the game started.”

Neil remains fond of Norwich, their fans and the owners, Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones. He understands the challenges facing Daniel Farke, the head coach. “Daniel’s style, to get out of the Championship, is ideal because they’ve got the best players and are so difficult to play against: so expansive, they make the pitch big and have real quality in forward areas. The problem is that style relies on confidence, on rhythm, on being in control of the ball every time you play.

“You can’t do that in the Premier League. Impossible. Because you come up against Man City and might have 20 per cent of the ball and have to understand how you’re going to stop them. That’s why the likes of Burnley do so well. Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, those guys [who are Premier League survival specialists] — they’re hard to beat, make things difficult, nick something.”

Neil notes how Thomas Frank has tweaked Brentford’s style to something more pragmatic since promotion, whereas Farke has been slower to compromise. Yet Neil recognises Farke’s principled nature (or is it stubbornness?) because “I was the same. I didn’t know anything different to the style I had. I tried width, pace and to keep attacking but one of the hardest things in the Premier League is the fixture list. You’re trying to find something that works but you go Man City away, Liverpool, Arsenal — then play Burnley. It’s the difference between having 20 per cent possession one day and 60 per cent the next.”

He left Preston “with frustration and a bit of fire in my belly” after a strange January transfer window in which the club sold three of his key players and the team tumbled from one point off seventh to 16th between mid-February and mid-March. He believes he’s a better manager now than that young guy on a golden roll.

“I’ve mellowed. I have more understanding of high-profile players and their different motivations. I’ve done almost 400 games and I’m 40, so it’s a lot of experience.”

An incredible lesson in how a managerial mind needs to stay fresh came when, after his promotion with Norwich, Neil took a call from Sir Alex Ferguson. “I thought it was going to be him saying, ‘You need to do this,’ but it was more him saying, ‘So what do you think about . . . ?’ He was more interested picking my brain and seeing my perspective. Brilliant.”

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5 minutes ago, Ulfotto said:

Throwing it out there Alex Neil to return to replace Farke?

Too big a job, he's better with no money spend, Barnsley would be a good job for him... he's a former Barnsley player as well. 

Howe, Lampard or Shevchenko for me. Martin O'Neil or Roy Hogson if we want a short term appointment. 

We need a big name.

Edited by TeemuVanBasten

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Personally found it a bit self serving. The 'self funding' model wasn't as much of a thing under his stewardship and to blame his failures here on a lack of money is just not true. Sure, we cocked up the summer transfer window in the Premier League but the club back him to the hilt when we went down he just wasted all the money on players we didn't need or he didn't know how to manage.

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I think the self sustaining thing has always been a thing it is just talked up now instead of down.  That is quite clever if you ask me as it just gives everyone clarity of how the club is run.

As for Neil it was a tongue in cheek suggestion really but I could see the logic of him accepting a mission impossible type assignment to try and restore pride before being replaced by the “real” replacement next season.

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To be fair, he was a great guy but whether it was him or not, he oversaw some of the biggest waste of money that has ever played for this club. So I don't think his CV says give him money and he will succeed.

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Sums it up perfectly. Always had a lot of time for Neil, but it does sound like a bit of a self-promotion in his looking for a new job, as is his partnering up with an old colleague (Martin Canning) at Hamilton to make up a management team to take into a new job.

He is right about the PL - you have to be more pragmatic - or you will end up being a good looking side but losing every week (which we al know so well). We are in the process of turning ourselves into that pragmatic style - we have (temporarily, I hope) side lined Farkeball and apart from against Chelsea in recent weeks, that has resulted in tighter games.

I suspect Farke has made his mind up that he is only going put players in who he sees as tough and uncompomising and is going to tough it out, hence the lack of creativity.  Giannoulis and Williams may have been too cavalier for him - the fourth goal against Chelsea saw Williams way too high up the pitch and I think that is why he put O'dele on the left of defence, much like other teams have been fielding more uncompromising players in those positions. 

So the Leeds game was very disappointing, but it did demonstrate a more robust approach and still trying to find the right formula.

Lets hope he can find it this weekend!

 

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3 minutes ago, cambridgeshire canary said:

Neil always seemed like a good guy and came off well, just a shame he was so clearly out of his depth in the top divison and his spending record almost bankrupt us and all

*McNally's spending spree....and we all thought he was a good signing at the time.

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Simon Hooper did more harm to Alex Neil's first and only shot at the Premier League than either Mad McNally or Stephen Naismith ever did.

 

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"I suspect Farke has made his mind up that he is only going put players in who he sees as tough and uncompomising and is going to tough it out, hence the lack of creativity."

Even tough and uncompromising players in the Premier League cost more than we can spend. Most PL teams have a sprinkling of those, and they still create, although Spurs seemed extra lacking and their manager has paid the price. 

Edited by BroadstairsR

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Alex Neil was just a very young manager who'd not really learned the game at that point and made a lot of mistakes as a result.

 

He seemed to have a thing for signing attacking midfielders, I lost track of how many we signed under him.

 

He was simply out of his depth and it really showed not just in the Premier league, but in the Champs after we went back down.

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1 minute ago, It's Character Forming said:

He seemed to have a thing for signing attacking midfielders, I lost track of how many we signed under him.

 

Yep, his decisions in the transfer market were at times completely bizarre.

£8m on Pritchard for a club that had spent £8m on Naismith 6 months earlier and already had Hoolahan and had Maddison waiting in the wings was...quite something.

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5 minutes ago, It's Character Forming said:

Alex Neil was just a very young manager who'd not really learned the game at that point and made a lot of mistakes as a result.

 

He seemed to have a thing for signing attacking midfielders, I lost track of how many we signed under him.

 

He was simply out of his depth and it really showed not just in the Premier league, but in the Champs after we went back down.

I still maintain it was that Newcastle game, which at one point could have gone either way, that sealed his fate. He stopped attacking from midfield and tried to defend. And that squad were great going forward but awful at the back.

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WE did have money and tried to spend it during his tenure, but the targets wouldn't come. The training ground was rank and we were targeting a level of player a little too high. If we spent the money in the summer on players just one level below your Koulibaly types they would have still been an upgrade on Martin/Bassong/Whittaker/Dorrans/Jerome etc and I believe we would have stayed up. But we tried to go too far too quickly, we gambled and lost, that's why we failed that season not money. 

Even only 5 years ago the PL wasn't what it is now, I think this team and the 18/19 team would have probably stayed up back then, but every season the quality of this league moves at pace, clubs have more and more money to spend, smarter people in charge, better managers etc  and now money is the issue. 

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2 minutes ago, king canary said:

Yep, his decisions in the transfer market were at times completely bizarre.

£8m on Pritchard for a club that had spent £8m on Naismith 6 months earlier and already had Hoolahan and had Maddison waiting in the wings was...quite something.

And the weird signing of Hooper for a system that didn’t need him at all. Yes it was almost as if we just signed who we could at the time and then tried to put it all together. Didn’t work. But worse for me was his obsession with Naismith- worst signing in the history of our club. He didn’t want to be here and sulked and took the money. 

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2 minutes ago, Dean Coneys boots said:

And the weird signing of Hooper for a system that didn’t need him at all. Yes it was almost as if we just signed who we could at the time and then tried to put it all together. Didn’t work. But worse for me was his obsession with Naismith- worst signing in the history of our club. He didn’t want to be here and sulked and took the money. 

He didn't sign Hooper, that was Hughton and a whole other story...

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35 minutes ago, king canary said:

He didn't sign Hooper, that was Hughton and a whole other story...

Ah yes- my memories getting jumbled. I blame age…

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Ah, the glory days when we finished 19th and were only 4-5 points shy of survival.  For me the 4-5 vs Pool was the turning point, I just felt gutted. But we played some good football, and in terms of goals scored we would have finished somewhere mid-table.   

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2 hours ago, king canary said:

Yep, his decisions in the transfer market were at times completely bizarre.

£8m on Pritchard for a club that had spent £8m on Naismith 6 months earlier and already had Hoolahan and had Maddison waiting in the wings was...quite something.

It might have been bluster but also his insistence on bidding for Ross McCormack! I’ll never forget how relieved I was when that didn’t pay off 😁

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35 minutes ago, Budapest Canary said:

Ah, the glory days when we finished 19th and were only 4-5 points shy of survival.  For me the 4-5 vs Pool was the turning point, I just felt gutted. But we played some good football, and in terms of goals scored we would have finished somewhere mid-table.   

Definitely this game was the disaster. 3-1 up against a poor Liverpool team early in the second half and in no particular danger. But an Alex Neill team (much like a Daniel Farke team) could never shut the back door. Until we learn how to do that, surviving in the EPL is just a dream, whoever the manager is.

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23 minutes ago, sgncfc said:

Definitely this game was the disaster. 3-1 up against a poor Liverpool team early in the second half and in no particular danger. But an Alex Neill team (much like a Daniel Farke team) could never shut the back door. Until we learn how to do that, surviving in the EPL is just a dream, whoever the manager is.

The beginning of the end for Russ Martin too, that woeful backpass to let them back into the game...

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3 hours ago, Christoph Stiepermann said:

WE did have money and tried to spend it during his tenure, but the targets wouldn't come. The training ground was rank and we were targeting a level of player a little too high. If we spent the money in the summer on players just one level below your Koulibaly types they would have still been an upgrade on Martin/Bassong/Whittaker/Dorrans/Jerome etc and I believe we would have stayed up. But we tried to go too far too quickly, we gambled and lost, that's why we failed that season not money. 

Even only 5 years ago the PL wasn't what it is now, I think this team and the 18/19 team would have probably stayed up back then, but every season the quality of this league moves at pace, clubs have more and more money to spend, smarter people in charge, better managers etc  and now money is the issue. 

This is a very fair assessment in my opinion - there is such a thing as being too ambitious and with the huge benefit of hindsight we went about things in the wrong way that season.

I'm quite prepared to admit this though - I was extremely happy with the January arrivals of Naithsmith, Klose and Pinto and felt we would stay up with room to spare.

We all know how it ended, but one thing I don't doubt is that Neil is a far better manager for the experience. I wish him well.

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7 hours ago, cambridgeshire canary said:

Neil always seemed like a good guy and came off well, just a shame he was so clearly out of his depth in the top divison and his spending record almost bankrupt us and all

He didn't authorise the spending though did he? That was McNally and the Board.

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