In previous columns, I’ve referred to the under-10’s football team that I coach – a team which earlier this season went through a series of results every bit as dire as Norwich City’s.
And as such, I confess that I feel a degree of empathy with Alex Neil.
As someone who used to ‘play a bit’, I understand the feeling of frustration he must have, watching from the sidelines and not being able to get out onto the pitch to lend a hand – or indeed a foot.
I also recognise his challenge – that of trying to reverse a run of wretched results when you’re working with the same group of players. The same faces, making the same collective mistakes, creating the same outcome.
The feeling of responsibility to turn it all round and develop a master-plan and the sense of utter dejection when those plans go down the pan.
Empathy – but not much sympathy.
Because whilst it’s not great watching your team under-perform week after week, unlike me, he gets paid for it (or at least he does for the time being).
But my lack of sympathy stems from one key concern. Namely that Alex Neil doesn’t fully accept his accountability for the present woes.
After the battering by Barnsley and the humbling by Huddersfield, Neil’s post-match comments suggest to me that our first-team manager is feeling more of a victim than a villain.
Or in his words a ‘scapegoat’.
Perhaps he has a point? After all, I’ve previously expressed the view that the club’s problems are deep-rooted and exist on many levels.
However, in every coaching course I’ve undertaken, there has been one fundamental message: the key responsibility of the football coach or manager is to create an environment where the players will flourish.
Something that Neil is clearly not delivering.
I accept that comparing the running of an under-10’s football team to trying to get a side promoted from the Championship is a bit glib. The level of scrutiny and pressure are obviously poles apart – especially as the earlier reference to ‘being paid for it’ means that livelihoods are at stake.
But I maintain that the underlying principles are the same.
In fact, it could be argued that Neil actually enjoys certain advantages over the grass-roots coach. For example, as the first-team manager there is one clear over-arching remit – to win football matches.
As daft as that sounds, in kids football the priority is on player development. Not only the technical and physical side but also on their social and physiological development.
What that means in real terms is a genuine focus on the players’ needs rather than results on the pitch. A focus on creating an inclusive environment and nurturing the children’s love of the game. Players’ involvement and their sensitivities are prioritised – often at the expense of results.
Alex Neil doesn’t necessarily have those considerations (although recent substitutions might make you wonder).
“I’m sorry I had to take Nelson off, Mr and Mrs Oliveira, it’s just I needed to give wee Cameron and Steven a run-out. It’s only fair after all.”
But the most important aspect of football coaching is the recognition that everything your players do is ultimately your responsibility and a reflection of the environment that you have created.
If they make a mistake, you need to consider what factors led to that mistake and how you may have contributed as the coach or the manager. An acceptance that your overall accountability extends way beyond tactics and team selections. The consideration that your every word and action will impact on the players’ mind-sets and influence their performance.
After the Barnsley game, Alex Neil admitted he had got the team selection wrong and received praise for doing so from certain quarters. However what troubled me was the undertone of the admission which effectively amounted to ‘I made the mistake of trusting the same players to perform’.
Equivalent to the most insincere of apologies i.e. ‘I’m sorry for thinking you were good enough’.
Not the most motivational of messages. Particularly when delivered to those you’re reliant on to deliver success.
Through word of mouth I recently learned that prior to the away game at Birmingham in late-August, Neil instructed the team to ‘show their class and out-play the opposition with possession-based football’. Following the 3-0 defeat, he then accused them in the media of over-playing.
Speculation perhaps but, if true, it’s unlikely to forge a common sense of trust.
But most worrying of all was his inference of becoming the scapegoat following the Huddersfield defeat.
If he genuinely feels hard done by for receiving criticism on behalf of his team and for the players’ failings then he’s lost sight of what his role and responsibilities are.
I’d like to add to Stewart’s and Ed’s festive greetings by wishing all of those who read and contribute to MyFootballWriter a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. 2016 has not been a great one for our football club and events both on and off the pitch have often polarised views and opinions. However the manner in which those views are discussed and debated is a credit to all.
Let’s hope that 2017 brings more things to cheer than jeer!