Now we’ll see what Alex Neil is made of.
I can’t share the view that the transfer window was a disaster for us. Clearly, the ultimate judgement will depend a bit on the impact that Oliveira and Pritchard have on the season ahead, but it’s not the end of the world – especially with the retention of key players such as Klose.
Having said that, the window clearly wasn’t ideal either. The club hoped to bring in more players, linked (at least financially) to one or two leaving us. The collapse of those deals, whatever the cause, leaves Alex with some challenges.
Of the post-window squad, one or two know we wanted to move them on; one perhaps wanted to go (though not enough to make it happen, apparently), one maybe not. At least one of the players for whom we rejected bids would have preferred to leave.
So we’ve refreshed the squad, but it’s a mix of mindsets. Alex and the players must be well aware of the fans’ discontent, exacerbated by a lousy performance in the last game. Team selection doesn’t take care of itself (though I don’t think we’ll see Steven Naismith as an out-and-out striker again). The players will be looking to their manager.
This is where leaders step up and make their presence felt.
No-one could say that Alex has had an easy time of it. After sweeping all before him in the Championship (more of that later), he had a real baptism of fire in the Premier League – a 34 year old, with the most modest squad in the division, taking on the world’s elite.
By his own admission, he made errors that were among the contributory factors to our relegation. (Arguably, the biggest factor was our failure in summer 2015 transfer window – had Koulibaly signed for us as promised, surely things would have been different.)
Let’s quickly go back to the 2014-15 season, when Alex joined us with 24 games gone, 22 to go. I’ve argued on here that Neil Adams did a decent job: we were seventh when he left, well above Cardiff and Fulham who came down with us and were heavily tipped to bounce straight back.
But Alex Neil did better with the same players. His 22 games in charge produced 49 points (best in the Championship over that period) and his team conceded 19 goals (also best in the Championship). That’s right, we conceded fewer than anyone else, with Martin and Bassong anchoring the defence.
So Alex has some special ability, reflected in the comments that players have made (including some not in the team). Has he lost that ability, or his confidence in it? Is he up to the tricky personnel challenge now facing us?
Time will tell, and some people whose opinion I respect have their doubts. But it seems to me we have reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.
For a start, he’s his own man. His post-match interviews remain straightforward and plain-speaking; he doesn’t say what the interviewer is fishing for, nor do you hear the interview and think “was he at the same game?” His priority is neither to be political nor to cover his backside.
No-one watching him can doubt the fire in the belly. From my seat in the City Stand, I vividly remember the touchline demeanour of Neil Adams, or Nigel Worthington in his last season with us. When things went awry, they had an expression of despair and helplessness. Alex knows what he wants; his irritation is reminiscent of Ferguson or Mourinho rather than Tim Sherwood.
An interesting issue is his involvement with transfers. In contrast to the common view that he’s being let down by the Board, I understand – including from his own comments – he’s involved and is realistic about the club’s financial position. It seems he was part of the decision that the McCormack deal, as demanded by Fulham and the player, was ultimately wrong for us.
That said, of course he’ll be disappointed we couldn’t do more. But the two characterisations we’ve seen of him on social media (“he’s ambitious and he’ll walk” or “he’ll stay because Norwich is the best he’ll ever get”) both seem wide of the mark.
I’ve no doubt Alex is ambitious, though his feet are less itchy than Paul Lambert’s. That’s partly a factor of age – while certainly young, Lambert was six years older than Alex Neil at the time each took charge of Norwich. Alex has time on his side (as did Lambert whose judgement may be debatable, but that’s another story).
At this stage, do we judge Alex Neil on the Blackburn game or the Birmingham one? I’d say neither. Judge after ten games minimum, with maybe some preliminary thoughts after the two coming up at Carrow Road.
Meanwhile, I see no sign of panic in our Alex. Looking back on the time in 1989-90 when his job was under threat, another Alex – Ferguson – reflects:
“I knew I was doing the job the right way. We simply had to get on with it”
That attitude – confident but the right side of arrogant – served him well. I think there’s something similar in our version.