I sometimes wonder if Alex Neil doesn’t occasionally miss life at New Douglas Park, home of Hamilton Academicals?
The club and town have the feel of a traditional village fete about them. Modest in stature but proud in name, the football club a tight-knit community within a larger but no less embracing one where family, friendship and loyalty are still virtues to be deeply valued and cherished.
There are those that will laugh at such perceived beliefs, thinking them out of date and out of place with the fast and furious digital world of today, one which sees more pride in a new car or flat screen television than taking the time to help a friend or neighbour out in time of need.
Such is life. There is little I can do to change the way priorities seem to have changed over the last three decades or so, but I don’t have to like it or accept it as my philosophy of choice.
So I don’t.
Alex Neil put that 21st century anachronism; that community within a community, Hamilton’s modest, even self-effacing, football club into a small corner of the Scottish footballing map in 2014.
It wasn’t so much the fact that he took them to promotion into the Scottish Premier League as the way he and the club achieved it.
Neil and Hamilton finished the 2013/14 place in second place in the Scottish Championship.
Yet, in a footballing environment that holds close the establishment as if they were their own kin; promotion was by no means guaranteed. To even have the right to play for the right to be promoted to the elite, Hamilton first had to meet third-placed Falkirk in a play-off semi-final, a game they won over two punishing legs 2-1 on aggregate.
Then, just three days after they had done this, they were back in action, meeting the club that had finished one off the bottom of the Scottish Premier League.
Hibernian, part of that cherished footballing establishment who, having found themselves in that predicament, at least had eleven rather than three days to prepare themselves for the two games in question.
Two games that would decide that, as far as most of the Scottish footballing suits would have been concerned, that Hibernian, with their greater allure, bigger gates, more prestige and (dare I say it) more friends in the boardroom, would simply confirm their continued presence in the Scottish Premier League. And this at the expense of Hamilton who would, in defeat, be patronised and regarded, for a time, as ‘plucky’.
A gnarled old-hand might even find the time and energy to put down his brandy and cigar before playfully ruffling the Accies curly-haired heads before leaving them to life in the provinces and continued obscurity; before that establishment settled down to sleep for the summer, blissfully content at the fact that the status quo had been maintained.
A fact that attempted to stare Alex Neil down only to retreat, abashed and not a little alarmed at the look which was returned. The look of a man who doesn’t care for having his hair ruffled (not that you could anyway) or his belly playfully tickled. The look, the steely eyed stare of a man who would never pick a fight, but by all the blood that ever fury breathed, you’d best not pick one with him because he will respond in kind and he will win.
And win he did.
It was a fight. And not a fair one, not by any means. Scottish football likes to cover all its bases, make sure that, if at all possible, the big teams stay in the big time whilst the smaller ones remain in their place. Were, for example, Falkirk to have won promotion to the Premier League at the end of their 36 game league campaign, they’d have had to have not only seen off Queen of the South over two more games but then Hamilton in two more followed by, at the end, Hibernian in yet two more matches.
Six games in 20 days. The intention, clearly, is to wear the challengers, the little man from the village out before he comes up against the top brass who will then be able to see the rascals off with ease and damn their impertinence.
It’s like expecting Maximus Decimus Meridius to see off a few Visigoths, a group of barbarians and some hungry tigers before, torn, bleeding and exhausted, he is expected to see off Rome’s most famous and favourite warrior – one who spent the intervening time being hand fed grapes by nubile young virgins as he reclined in comfort at his coastal hideaway.
A bit of a disadvantage? No problem, says Alex Neil.
Lose the first leg of the final to a fresher and fitter Hibs team? And at home? Tis’ but a scratch replies Alex.
The odds were hopelessly against him and his team. He’d come up against the system and the system had, as it was designed to do, won. Hibernian will confirm their superiority in a party of a second-leg and all will be well.
Smiles all round. Not least amongst those who sit at the head of the Scottish Premier League table.
Except that, of course, things didn’t wholly work out as had been expected or decreed.
Because Hibernian, their management, players, fans or the whole Scottish footballing establishment hadn’t realised who they were up against.
A man who likes a challenge, who likes to stare down his detractors, to prove people wrong, to do whatever it takes to get what he wants for himself and the people he is responsible for. And beat the odds regardless.
He did it with Hamilton in getting them promotion. And he did it with them again in taking them to the top of the Scottish Premier League, outwitting and generally outplaying a typically cocky Celtic en-route.
And he made it a hat-trick last season when, with us, he won promotion in the most glorious fashion, bringing about a wholly unexpected day of joy to the players and fans of a team who were, in early December 2014, in 11th place in the Championship, one win in six and seemingly in freefall.
‘I like those odds’, thought Alex.
The odds are against him again now. As are, for the first time in his managerial career, some of the fans of the club he is managing. Maybe, if rumours are to be believed, he even has a few of his players doubting him as well.
We’re struggling. Our defence is a mess; the investment in new players has come in the manner of a Dean Ashton, a transfer window too late. He is a man under pressure, a man who, claim his most vociferous critics, “doesn’t even know what his best starting XI is”.
But then neither, it would seem, do those same Norwich City supporters. Get ten of Alex’s most vociferous critics together and ask them to pick the team and formation they’d select for the game at Leicester and its pretty much odds on you’ll get ten different team selections.
Not that it stops us telling him what he should be doing.
So it’s not only the odds that are against him this time around. It’s some of his own as well.
And you know what? He’ll like the challenge of overcoming all of that more than anything he’s done yet.
He’s started already.
Slowly but surely, you can see a different approach, a different way of doing things emerging from in and around the club.
There’s talk of major investment at Colney for a start. And we’re not talking about a lick of paint here or a new portakabin there. This is serious stuff.
Then there is a subtle change in the club’s transfer and recruitment policy, one that was best reflected in the purchase of James Maddison from Coventry City on the last day of the window.
Dare I say it, a player who is young, hungry, ambitious and determined to prove a point at a higher level. Not unlike the manager who signed him.
Two other signings have been made which match the vision invested in with the signing of Maddison.
Ben Godfrey and Ebou Adams. Young, ambitious and determined etc. You could say the same about Patrick Bamford. Players who mirror the attitude and ambition of the manager. Players who will want to progress, improve and go forward. Players who fit the bill for a club such as ourselves.
One ex-professional who has since worked in coaching once said to me that, as a club, you should never sign a player who sees you as anything other than a step up with regard to his career.
If they see it as a sideways or even retrograde one, else are coming for reasons other than wanting to push on, improve and to achieve things in the game, then you leave them well alone. We saw evidence of this when Alex Neil came, saw and rejected Celta Vigo striker Joaquin Larrivey for reasons that were best concluded as being that Larrivey and Neil didn’t share a common footballing outlook.
Larrivey has since signed for a club in Abu Dhabi. Baniyas were formed in 1981, play in a ground that has a capacity of around 9,500 and, in 2014/15 finished 8th out of 14 in the UAE Pro League.
Clearly he went for the footballing challenge and the opportunity to improve as a player. Or maybe not. But he was a bullet, it seems, well dodged.
Neil rejected the option to sign him just as, I think, he would have done that of signing a certain Dutch striker had he been at the helm of the club at the time we parted with that record transfer fee.
Ricky was young, yes. But that seems to have been the beginning and the end of his footballing qualities. And yes, maybe I am judging him unfairly and with cruel hindsight, but I still think Alex Neil would have seen through his Emperor’s new clothes long before anyone else connected with the club did.
Thus, a little over a year into his tenure as Norwich City manager, it is possible to deduce the direction the club might be looking to take over the next few years; one which may, in time, even see new ownership and all that such a mammoth change will bring.
Time will tell, but, as we have already seen and has been discussed, the appointment of Thomas Smith to the club’s board suggests there is more than the foundations of a long-term plan in place.
One which mirrors the appointment of Alex Neil.
And which looks to have been perpetuated with the signings of Maddison, Godfrey and Adams.
A plan is in place. It would be a great pity to tear it all up and start again now. So let’s stick with it and our manager. Have a bit of belief, a bit of faith in the long-term future and the direction the club seems to be taking. I think it’s going to be worth it.
Besides, whenever the odds are against us, I want a man who stares them down and emerges the winner rather than someone who runs away at the first sign of possible adversity on the previously sunny horizon.
And we’ve had a few of those over the years.