The City board finally calls time on Neil’s tenure. Sad yet inevitable but we’ll always have WembleyFri 10 Mar 17 by Gary Gowers
For a while it was beautiful. But only for a short while.
Five months in fact.
The beauty was all too fleeting; ugliness prevailed. And it was accompanied by considerable pain.
When Alex Neil arrived – as a Scottish Red Adair with a brief to inject life (and promotion) into a talented but errant squad – he ticked every box: passionate, determined, focussed and singled minded.
From that first brush with the touchline at Dean Court, when Jonny Howson’s dismissal lured him to a technical area originally occupied by Mike Phelan, he bristled with authority and it was a demeanour that immediately found favour with a squad that was not without talent but was without direction.
Even his first Norwich City defeat – at home to an Alex Pritchard inspired Brentford – was, although littered with wrongs, used as a platform from which to propel a re-united squad to within a hair’s breadth of the automatic promotion spots.
The transformation was astounding – 15 wins, 5 draws and 2 defeats – and took us all on an adventure that culminated in one of the great Norwich City days.
Wembley was magnificent, Alex Neil at its very heart, and the thrill experienced by the Yellow Army that afternoon logically led us all to believe it was merely the start.
But it wasn’t. Wembley was its zenith. And Alex, the odd highlight apart, peaked on that sunny, joyful afternoon in north-west London; the sight of him being held aloft on the shoulders of (ironically) Bradley Johnson one of the abiding memories of an afternoon crammed full of them as the club celebrated its finest achievement of the 21st century.
Few of us will forget Alex hurriedly swapping sharp suit for scruffy tracksuit in the minutes between national anthem and kick-off; our very own Clark Kent swapping suit and glasses for superhero lycra and cape.
And at that precise moment he was our Superman – the footballing world appeared our oyster (well, at least a decent crack at a sustained spell in the Premier League).
Yet it was before the Wembley dust had even settled that the story started to unravel.
Despite the bullish, bravado-driven predictions of some (me) who proclaimed Alex’s Wembley heroes as good enough to go toe-to-toe with the Premier League’s also-rans, in reality it was a squad that desperately needed an upgrade – especially in terms of its defensive personnel.
But, for reasons that have been discussed to within an inch of their lives, the summer of 2015 transfer window did little to bolster the squad in general, even less to enhance a back-four that still bore the scars of top flight relegation in 2013/14.
Plans were reportedly made, lists drawn up, agents engaged, but one solitary defender made his way to Norwich in that summer. And no-one believes the name ‘Andre Wisdom’ appeared on the recruitment team’s original list of most wanted.
Yet there we were, about to embark upon one of football’s sternest, most unforgiving tests with a back five that, for the most part, had been the one that had taken us down in 2013/14. ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ never felt more apt.
David McNally took the flak, so too head scout extraordinaire Lee Darnbrough, while Alex, by and large, was just seen as the unfortunate recipient of a squad that was unfit for purpose. But given the miracle he had performed earlier in the year, we somehow trusted the manager to produce a silk purse from the sow’s ear he’d been handed.
That he was unable to do so was perceived by most as a fundamental shortcoming in the club’s ability to recruit rather than a failing on his part but, regardless of with whom the blame rested and despite some hefty sums being spent in January 2016, relegation was the bitter, costly yet inevitable upshot.
Alex’s credits in the bank extended to an ovation as he and the players sheepishly paraded around the pitch after the final home game against Watford. He expressed surprise – he expected at least a modicum of heat. Instead he showered with warmth. Hugs not brickbats.
But in truth the die was cast and the curve downward. The hammer blow of a 6-2 reversal on Tyneside early on in that season had taken its toll and sucked nerve, bravery and innovation from the Neil armoury. He was never the same again.
The words and soundbites never wavered but post-St James’ Park they masked uncertainty and doubt. His mojo when AWOL in Newcastle that day, only popping up briefly in Manchester just before Christmas 2015.
The recruitment of summer 2016 matched that of summer 2015 – not helped by the untimely and messy departure of Alex’s closest ally, David McNally – and the club again struggled to get deals to sign defensive quality over the line.
In fact only the signing of Timm Klose came anywhere close to ticking that box when he arrived in the January 2016 window; albeit that particular signing now looks better on paper than it does on Championship grass.
The exit of McNally rattled Alex. The then CEO had identified the unheralded and unknown Scot from a long and quite illustrious list and thanks to the honourable actions of Hamilton was able to get his man with the minimum of fuss.
(And from Alex’s wobble last summer, borne of McNally’s departure, came the much discussed and much derided new contract.)
But despite reassurances to the contrary is wasn’t business as usual without McNally, and the usual suspects (and some new ones) again failed to deliver where and when it mattered most.
The services of Alex Pritchard were acquired from under the noses of Brighton – arguably in a position in which the squad was already well stocked – but in reality Neil was again delivered a squad that was without balance and one that had not been strengthened at both extremities of the pitch.
It was also a squad that was saddled with an unworthy sense of self-importance; a facet unbecoming of one that actually needed grit and determination by the shed load. But still it contained sufficient levels of quality to see off low-level opposition and take the Canaries to the top of the Championship.
But it was thrill-free, seat of the pants type stuff and when the league’s top ten hoved into view the wheels gradually began to fall off. Bit by bit the ship that Alex built began to take on water and a toxic mix of demotivated players and a manager whose modus operandi had been rumbled sent the Canaries into a fatal downward spiral.
The message was always undoubtedly there but it was muddled, over-complicated and met with disdain by those who should have been taking it on board. The upshot was a barren run of soul destroying away-day defeats that effectively signaled the end.
While the home form stood the test reasonably well it was in truth only against bottom-half-of-the-table opposition that City prospered. It’s been an end game that’s been a while in the making.
Alex Neil has ultimately paid the price for failings of a structure that is unfit for purpose – and it’s impossible to not feel sympathy for one who appears a decent human being – but is also living proof that, for most, a fast-track to top level football management is a non-starter.
Such is the pressure, glare and intensity it’s no environment in which to learn and develop. Those stripes have to be earned the hard way. And it’s as part of that apprenticeship when you learn the tactical nuances of sticking or twisting, and how and when to make substitutions that will impact on a game. And how to keep on board those for whom the message goes in one ear and out the other.
A UEFA pro licence will arm you with the theory of all of the above but only in the field of battle can one learn the harsh, sometimes unpalatable realities of being on the receiving end of a Premier League pummeling or a Championship war of attrition.
And Alex, even by his own admission, was found wanting when tactical acumen needed to take over from momentum and new manager syndrome, and when his message to the dressing room started to fall on deaf, unwilling ears it was the beginning of the end.
The death knell was first sounded when, after the poor run of results and no discernible improvement in performance, he reacted waspishly to criticism in the local press. And when the Barclay asked Delia to “sort it out” during the Huddersfield defeat it was confirmation that the faithful had had enough.
Few come back from that, even though with the support of the board he clung on to his post far longer than the 5-0 defeat at Brighton deserved.
But Alex’s failure is not his alone. The Norwich City ‘system’ has failed him and the hand he was dealt to keep the club in the Premier League was woefully inadequate; so too the systematic failure from above to deliver him a balanced squad of grit and talent equipped for the Championship.
For too long we kidded ourselves with the ‘second best squad in the Championship’ nonsense, with the theory being belied by performances on the pitch. It was a catchy label but one for which there was zero evidence.
The players themselves have done little, very little, to dig their manager out of an ever-increasing hole – each non-deliverer playing his own not insignificant part in their manager’s downfall – and there’ll be an element of gall when or if the new manager starts to get a tune out of this squad.
Yet football’s circle of life continues and Alex’s misfortune is opportunity for another; the big question of course being do we trust those from above to get this one right? And even if they do, have they the nous, desire and cold hard cash to drive this club forward?
But that’s for tomorrow.
Today is about Alex Neil. And we’ll always have Wembley.