The Column: A Year of Alex Neil

Daniel Brigham is one half of The Little Yellow Bird Project, a gorgeously designed and splendidly written Norwich City blog. He wrote a cracking piece on Mike Walker’s 1992/93 Norwich side for us last year and after nearly a year of the Alex Neil era, he’s the perfect person to ask how it’s all going over at Carrow Road.

When casting began on turning Mario Puzo’s bestselling Mafia epic The Godfather into a movie, the studio wanted big names for the leads. Star names; faces familiar to a cinema audience. For Michael Corleone, the all-American son back from serving with the Marines, producer Bob Evans drew up a list of actors: Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Warren Beatty. The biggies.

The director, Francis Ford Coppola, had a different list for Michael. It was one line, and two words: Al Pacino. He was unknown in Hollywood, a small guy who Coppola had recently seen in Broadway play Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie? The performance had stuck with Coppola, and now he wanted this little guy in his big movie.

Evans was aghast. No way he was casting an unknown. “A runt will not play Michael,” he told Coppola. Well, the runt did play Michael. Coppola got his way, smoothing Evans’ jumpiness by allowing the casting of established actor James Caan to play Michael’s brother, Sonny. The rest is moving pictures history.

Coppola was lucky social media didn’t exist back in 1972. He’s lucky the Internet didn’t exist (it definitely didn’t; I just googled it). An unknown announced for the lead role? These numpties don’t know what they’re doing. The casting directors are totally lacking in tactical nous. Should’ve gone for a safe pair of hands like Redford.

Sometimes, though – many times, in fact – it’s best to trust a man with a singular vision, a man who can spot talent before anyone else. Coppola wanted Pacino. David McNally, Norwich’s chief executive, wanted Alex Neil. Unknown. Unglamorous. Definitely not a safe pair of hands.

While the incumbent Norwich manager Neil Adams – permanently appointed from within following Norwich’s Chris Hughton-inspired relegation to the Championship in 2013-14 – was struggling with his first job in management, Alex Neil was climbing up McNally’s list of potential replacements.

McNally loves his numbers. And Neil was in 35th place on an internal list of the best 250 managers in Europe – which, for someone aged just 33 and with very little managerial experience, was freakishly high. McNally was intrigued. Neil got his Hamilton Academical side promoted to the SPL in his first season as player/manager in 2013-14, and in the following season had taken them to the top of the Premiership table following a first win at Celtic since 1938. Not many south of the border had noticed. McNally had. He’d even, reportedly, had every Hamilton game scouted to keep an eye on his progress.

When Adams stepped down in January (the sort of stepping down that usually involves someone sticking their leg out in front of them), Norwich were outside the play-offs. Promotion looked unlikely. The fans wanted someone with experience. Twitter wanted Neil Warnock, with 35 years of management behind him. Facebook wanted Neil Lennon, a success at Celtic and searching for a job in England.

McNally wanted Neil. McNally got Neil.

When the news broke on January 9th last year that Alex Neil (or Alex Who, as he was mostly called in the first couple of days) was Norwich’s new manager, a few things happened. Firstly, Wikipedia – rapidly replacing dogs as man’s best friend – was checked: Scottish. Hamilton manager. Young. Played a bit in England for Barnsley. Secondly, it dawned on anyone older than 33 that the unthinkable had happened and the Norwich manager was younger than them. Terrifying. Thirdly, the Internet happened. As more and more information about him was passed around Norfolk like a cigarette in a war film, and a picture was built of this man few had heard of at the start of the day, two camps emerged. Those dismayed that your Warnocks and your Lennons hadn’t been appointed, and those who smelt the whiff of Paul Lambert in the air. Lambert was also a McNally appointment, also an inexperienced punt and, crucially, a massive success at Norwich, taking them from League One to the Premier League with successive promotions.

The first sign that Neil might be an inspired choice was the reaction of the Hamilton fans. They loved him. They loved him so much that rather than take the default football fan option of being bitter about a manager leaving, they were happy to let him go, desperate to see their chosen one succeed. Neil was Braveheart heading south for new adventures.

One he was Hamilton’s, now he was Norwich’s. And here was an opportunity to create a rare thing in football – a bond with an exciting new manager, one few had heard of, one you can call your own. His Glaswegian vowels may be hundreds of miles north of the Norfolk vowels, he may never have been spoken about in Yarmouth or King’s Lynn, Fakenham or Cromer before, but Bond Potential was immediately obvious.

McNally had been brave. He could have picked up a Warnock or a Mick McCarthy, men who spend their careers falling off the managerial merry-go-round, waiting for yet another chief executive to give them a hand up, brush them off and plonk them back on the wooden horse. But there would have been no sense of a new beginning for Norwich, no attempt at a legacy. No bond.

Neil came across well when he was unveiled. No umms, no aahs. Clear and concise. Then two things happened over the next three days that started to turn some of the doubters. With Norwich’s next game, at table-toppers Bournemouth, coming only the day after his appointment, he sat in the stands and let interim manager Mike Phelan – Alex Ferguson’s former No.2 at Manchester United – pick the team and oversee things from the touchline. But, with the game level at 1-1, Norwich midfielder Jonny Howson was sent off in the 63rd minute. Neil sprung from his seat in the stands and headed to the touchline. Phelan retreated into the dugout. Despite being down to 10 men, Neil made attacking substitutions and barked instructions. Norwich won 2-1.  The bond was forging.

Two days later, that bond drew even closer. This time, it was thanks to Twitter. A popular Norwich city centre pub tweeted a picture of a smiling Neil having a drink and watching a Hamilton match on TV. Now, this wasn’t quite Brian Clough and the Nottingham Forest players going for a drink at the Trent Bridge Inn after matches, but it was still a manager having a drink. In a pub. Where people can see him. Like a real person.

A winning start, on and off the pitch, coupled with his age and the sense of Norwich having discovered him meant it felt like the bond had been permanently forged. But, of course, you can’t create a lasting bond without winning games. So, luckily for Norwich, it turns out Neil appears to be an excellent manager. His story may be buried under Leicester, Watford, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Bournemouth this season, but the tale of one of Britain’s – perhaps Europe’s – most promising managers deserves attention.

Playing intricate football with the full-backs high and Wes Hoolahan, Nathan Redmond and Jonny Howson providing nimble attacking skirmishes, Neil turned Norwich into entertainers. They were involved in only one 0-0 in 2015, and won 17 of their 25 games in the Championship under him, including a controlled 2-0 win over much-fancied Middlesbrough in the Play-off final – their second goal a 16-pass, 30-touch move of the highest quality. This season there has been a win at Old Trafford and draws against Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton. They’ve won three of their last four matches to move six points clear of the bottom three.

Spend any time in Neil’s presence and it’s no surprise how well he’s done. He explains everything in simple, concise terms, with an enthusiasm and quick intelligence that makes Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society look like Michael Gove. In short, he’s a leader, that rare blend of being completely terrifying while still emanating warmth and bonhomie; the snarling Labrador. You might not jump off a cliff if he asked you to, but you’d sure as hell have a sneaky peak over the edge.

Left-back Martin Olsson has spoken about how thorough Neil and his coaching staff are, comparing his meticulous nature to Sam Allardyce. The teams spends hours spent in the video room analysing opponents: “We’re not used to that as players but we’ve been doing that since he came in.” Central defender Sébastien Bassong, who Neil recalled from a loan at Watford following a falling-out with Neil Adams, told The Sunday Times about their first meeting: “The way he was talking, even if it was a bit… threatening… that’s what made me think, ‘I can get along with this guy.’ Because there’s no bullshit.” Before Neil let Bassong leave the room, he had one final piece of advice: “‘Before you go, Seb,’ ‘Yes boss?’ ‘If you fuck around I’ll break your balls.’ Ah, gosh, that was good, I thought. He’s a man.” One of the stand-out moments from the Wembley win was Neil going apoplectic on the touchline with five minutes to go, and Norwich 2-0 up, after a rare stray pass gave away possession. Some likened it to a pitbull chewing on a wasp, but it was more like a werewolf chewing on a pitbull.

Neil’s a learner. After a 2-2 draw at Upton Park in September, when West Ham equalised in the 93rd minute, Neil was adamant about how he wanted his side to play: “Football is an entertainment sport, as far as I’m concerned,” he told reporters. “I want to watch football to be entertained and see good players doing good things. Passing the ball well, seeing passes, having that bit of creativity. I think I’ve got that in my team and I want to see my team entertain people. As a fan you go to see that. You don’t go to see teams, in my eyes, grind it out and I don’t want my teams to do that.” Then a gung-ho 6-2 defeat at Newcastle happened, and for the first time there was doubt in Neil’s words. Norwich went defensive in response, but you could tell Neil was itchy, a gambler who’d lost his wallet in a casino. It took him four or five games – remarkably quickly for someone so inexperienced – for him to find a balance between defence and attack that didn’t leave his backline exposed but still got the most out of his creative players.

The team stuttered while Neil searched for the remedy, and there were the first grumblings of discontent from some fans after a 2-0 defeat at Watford. But the bond was strong: he’s young, bright, British and one of Norwich’s own, after all. It shouldn’t really matter, the whole British thing. But, for the health of the game in the UK, it’s important that the country isn’t just producing meat-and-potato managers.

While Eddie Howe, Mark Hughes and Alan Pardew are doing wonderful work and forging potentially long-lasting bonds with their clubs, just think of some of the alternatives: Sam Allardyce, onto his eighth managerial post and starting to look like he should be presenting a remake of Ground Force; Tony Pulis, also managing his eighth club and increasingly looking like the kind of man who loves the smell of a butcher’s shop in the morning; Steve Bruce, another manager at his eighth club and looking like he’d be much happier growing prize-winning marrows on an allotment. What’s to get excited about there?

For middling clubs like Norwich, the only way to generate excitement, to provide a touch of hope, to believe they’re on a journey worth being a part of, is to turn their backs on the more famous, merry-go-round managers. Sometimes being brave and casting an unknown like Alex Neil will have irresistible, long-lasting consequences.

You can follow Daniel Brigham on Twitter. (@Dan_Brigham)


The Column: A Year of Alex Neil
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