Hate to say it, but told you so – AN’s inability to firefight when the chips are down is his undoingWed 28 Dec 16 by Craig Bailey
For the first time in a long time I find myself glad that I have something distracting me from football. The birth of my first son a couple of weeks ago means I’ve not been to a game since Leeds at home.
However, I write this safe in the knowledge that the majority of City fans share these sentiments.
When Alex Neil got the job I was probably the most sceptical of all Canary fans; I’ve mentioned this in a previous piece. Being totally honest I’d never heard of him.
Upon further research I didn’t buy David McNally’s assessment that we had just employed one of the brightest young managers in the game. At best I felt we’d employed a young manager who’d had a bright start and had achieved a promotion from a second tier to first, albeit at a lesser level. That belief remains.
We had no idea of how his identity would translate to a higher level.
Let me also state that I was well and truly thrilled to have my doubts dismissed over the first few months of Neil’s reign. That being said, we did choke automatic promotion against Middlesbrough at home, albeit that wrong was rectified by beating then so comprehensively at Wembley.
Whilst it’s a day I’ll never forget, it’s also worth noting that while the cash that came with promotion made it a truly significant game at the time, I don’t think it will be remembered over time as it wasn’t the FA Cup!
In reality the prize was no greater, or lesser, than that which Messrs Lambert, Worthington and more had achieved before him.
But I was pleasantly surprised to how we began the Premier League season too; points may not have been forthcoming but the performances were great.
Then, alas, along came that fateful Sunday afternoon in Newcastle. The game when Neil made an attacking sub – Wes for Tettey – and disaster ensued. It shook Neil to his core.
It was plain to see by all. His entire ethos changed and it’s never changed back. It was as if he began to doubt himself, to question what he was doing. And it became a serious problem.
It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to achieve in life, if you don’t believe in your own ability you’ll most likely fail. It’s a disease that spreads to those around you and this is what has happened here. It started with the players, spread to the fans and it will, eventually, spread to the board (although I have no idea how long the latter will take).
I no longer know Neil’s footballing identity and that’s also a problem.
We saw last week from Huddersfield’s David Wagner what a solid identity and ethos can achieve although, to be fair, time will tell if he can withstand the tough times.
Wagner epitomised the Alex Neil who first turned up in Norfolk; high pressing, high energy, attacking football. Not dissimilar to Paul Lambert, albeit the Lambert’s success was due to exceptionally hard team work from a defensive perspective, which ultimately allowed the more flamboyant attackers to prosper.
Neil talks of this type of football and “earning the right to play”, but often states it as a fight and with such a physically small squad, fights are not something we will win too often.
He’d consistently played 4141 or 4411 as far as I’m aware at Hamilton, ensuring that the two blocks of 4 were regimented of the ball. If that was that the real Alex Neil you’d have expected him to translate that to the EPL. But he hasn’t.
In a way this shows that he is capable of change – something he has been criticised for being unwilling to do – but equally as a result I still have no idea what his ethos really is.
My biggest fear when he was employed was that he didn’t have enough experience to fall back on when things got tough, as of course would be the case if he achieved promotion. His ability to deal with tough times, when things go against you, where you’re not meeting or exceeding expectations were, when he was first appointed, a complete unknown.
It’s with sadness that I feel those doubts have now been proved correct and are now why we desperately need a change.
I’ve seen many reasons touted online for our current decline – transfer policy, the owners, the players, Moxey, McNally, the stubborn tactics, like for like and/or lack of substitutions – and of course they all play their part, but these issues get forgotten when you’re winning.
The ultimate reason that Alex needs to go is that we are losing too many games at a level in which we should not be. It’s not easy, far from it, but given the previous seasons, we should be in a position where we expect to win more often than not in the Championship and compete in the top six.
But we’re not. Therefore he simply needs to go. Every step forward seems to have two steps back.
I’ve also rarely known such ferocious animosity towards a manager and owners which has made me question ‘why?’ Why does this feel worse than Hughton’s second season, and for some, worse than Roeder, Gunn, Grant, etc?
I think the reason is a combination of modern football and modern social interaction methods. After all, we’ve more often than not been a second tier club, so isn’t the current feeling a touch melodramatic?
Well, no. And here’s why: McNally and Lambert changed something that had bugged me for decades – the nice little club tag. They changed it on and off the pitch and I loved it.
Watching that be eroded is heart-breaking. Our succession plan with going up this season or next makes me nervous; lots of new external funding will be needed, but without going up this season or next fills me with abject fear for the future.
I’m not sure Gary Rowett is the answer; he’s done okay at Burton and Birmingham, but are we really at the stage where okay replaces excellent? Alan Pardew on the other hand has been there and done it at this level and to varying degrees in the EPL.
I’d personally go all out to get the latter but fear that funding already puts him out of our reach.
My final thoughts are thus:
To the fans – stay classy. Things aren’t great but there’s no need for some of the abuse I’ve seen directed towards the owners, players, staff and manager. If you can’t articulate your point without abuse it’s maybe best not to say it at all.
And to the owners – I implore you to act now. There’s a crucial January transfer window to think about and it may be too late already for somebody new to assess the squad and make the changes necessary to ensure we make the play-offs.
I hope you all had a great festive period, football aside and I’d like to take the opportunity to wish you all and NCFC a prosperous 2017.