‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,’ sang The Who at the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again.
But song lyrics don’t always get it right (as evidenced by Vanessa Williams’ astronomically inaccurate assertion in Save The Best For Last that ‘sometimes the sun goes round the moon’) and it would appear that the old and new bosses at Carrow Road are like calcium carbonate and camembert.
Even their names are almost mirror opposites. Neil A. was affable, well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual; A.Neil looks like a hard-nosed winner…
At least, that’s the narrative that’s quickly been constructed, even though the truth is probably less clear-cut. Neil A. was no soft touch in the way he marginalised Sebastien Bassong, and A.Neil’s line-up against Cardiff on Saturday was as gung-ho as anything his predecessor picked, even using the 4-2-3-1 formation employed at the start of the season.
So why is there suddenly a widespread conviction amongst City supporters that our new manager is a Special One who is going to get us promoted in May (possibly even early May)? Considering that he’s been in the job for only two weeks, the extent to which he’s won us over is remarkable. The two wins in those two weeks helped, of course, but I’m not sure whether the rest of it is down to us or him.
In a sense, he was the popular choice from the start – the sense being that most City fans would have chosen ‘None of the above’ from a list of the early candidates, and that’s what Alex Neil was.
And the fact that we knew so little about him beforehand made him something of a blank canvas onto which we have projected what we want to see. And we’ve based those projections on the few snippets of information we have: he’s Scottish; he seems to be a no-nonsense kind of guy; he goes for young, hungry players and gets the best out of them; he has no previous affiliation with Norwich; he was targeted and signed up by the club in double-quick time, with no long, drawn-out selection process.
In other words, we’re all desperate for him to be another Paul Lambert.
Rick Waghorn made, perhaps unconsciously, another link between the two men in his column on Monday; his remark that Alex Neil ‘might be a young man in something of a hurry’ was reminiscent of Alan Bowkett’s description of Lambert as ‘possibly the most impatient man I have ever met’ (though I don’t think Mr Bowkett meant it in a good way).
I really hope that we don’t place unrealistically high expectations on our new man because of these parallels. Paul Lamberts are very rare; let’s face it, even Paul Lambert isn’t Paul Lambert any more.
Indeed, inspirational leaders in any field are thin on the ground. I’ve had plenty of bosses over the years, but the number who made me feel I could achieve more than I thought myself capable of could be counted on the fingers of one foot.
It’s important that we judge Alex Neil on his own merits. And even taking no account of the results on the pitch, he’s got off to a very good start.
He hasn’t said anything which has jarred or rung alarm bells – and while the absence of a foot in the mouth may not sound like a big plus point, it’s actually hugely important. You may not be able to win everyone over straight away, but you can certainly lose them if you’re not careful.
I’ve been present at more than one all-staff address by a new boss where I realised immediately that the appointment was going to be a disaster. Happily, that doesn’t seem to be the case here, according to Russell Martin: “In his first meeting with the lads – if a few of them didn’t know much about him, then they did after that. They were really impressed”.
I know: to misquote the late Mandy Rice-Davies, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But we have to hope it’s true. And Neil certainly hasn’t made Chris Hughton’s early and repeated mistake of going on about the quality of the opposition (admittedly more difficult to do in the Championship than the Premier League).
Nor has he come in and criticised the ability – or, as many new managers do, the fitness – of the squad. (One new boss in my past working life gathered the department together on his first day and instantly demoralised everyone by telling us how poor our work was. I wasn’t surprised to hear someone at the back utter an audible ‘Oh, s***’, though I was surprised that it wasn’t me.) Rather, Neil has declared that he has ‘hundreds of good things to work with’.
But how does he rate when it comes to the positive aspects of leadership: acting with confidence and authority; speaking engagingly; giving clear direction; and betraying no self-doubt?
Again, very highly. So far, he has spoken with self-assurance and, refreshingly, without the usual ‘at the end of the day, it’s about getting back to winning ways’ clichés. Russell Martin has commented: “He’s certainly got his point across… there will be no grey areas – it will be black and white.” And throughout the Cardiff game, he was busy issuing instructions from the technical area. (Though I do remember praising Peter Grant for being similarly active when he became manager…)
Nor does it hurt that there’s an air of menace about him. Perhaps it’s the combination of the accent, the shaven head and the steely look in the eye, but you do get the sense that a biopic about him would contain sustained threat and strong language.
Overall, the general excitement about our new manager has come as much from the way he’s conducted himself as from the hopes we’ve pinned upon him. And let’s be clear, I’m excited too; like The Who again, I’m more than happy to tip my hat to the new constitution, to smile and grin at the change all around.
I just think we need to remember that it’s still very early days – and as our greatest Norfolk hero Lord Nelson (possibly) said to the cabin boy holding the tin of ship’s biscuits, let’s try to keep a lid on it and not go overboard.
And finally… there’s a puzzle on pages 38 and 39 of The Official Canaries Annual 2015, in which you have to find five famous people in a large photo of City fans.
Hurrah, there I am just above the headline on the left-hand page!
Boo, I’m not one of the answers…