After a Derby performance in which City played with the spirit of 2011, the defensive adeptness of 2004 and the attacking verve of 2015, Alex Neil is here to stay.
Contrary to the relentless ineptitude, lack of ideas and general misery that characterised what was an ultimately dismal 2016 for City, our side saw in 2017 with a bold, fresh and clinical performance, eroding the festive memories of a grim Boxing Day in Berkshire and an unstimulating stalemate in the capital with a performance of real promise.
For 90 nippy January minutes, we were served up a new year’s treat.
Nelson Oliviera was superb, completing a perfect hat-trick with three varied but equally brilliant finishes. The returning Wes Hoolahan was at his magical best, innovatively weaving in between defenders and continually causing problems. Likewise to at Brentford, Timm Klose again proved why he is our most reliable centre-back.
Exciting times? Not quite, but this performance did delineate just what this City side are capable of. It showed that if Neil – finally – picks his most effective team, deploys the right tactics and fosters the requisite unity and spirit required to produce results, this season will not descend into the futile one it appeared to be plummeting into. Time now to build.
Since mid-November, I have been considerably critical of Neil. By the time the Christmas period came along, it appeared we all had. City had endured a run in which at times they appeared fundamentally useless, incapable of keeping clean sheets and creating little going forward. It was grim viewing.
Brighton, Preston, Leeds, Derby, QPR, Barnsley – to name a few – ticked by. City appeared increasingly inept by the week. Defensive fragility was ubiquitous. Neil had to go.
But he hasn’t. Whilst the reason why has now become visibly apparent – Moxey and the board bizarrely and obdurately backing a manager incapable of inspiring results or performances – the Scot is here to stay. We must now unite and support him.
After what I saw I was happy for Neil. Regardless of our contempt towards his management and his fundamental failure to derive results from an ultimately talented and capable squad, he is a laudable and likeable character. He gave us Wembley, Old Trafford and jubilant away days such as Forest and on Merseyside in the cup. I’ve always wanted him to succeed.
And Monday showed he still can. Despite all that’s been said and the dreary football we have endured both at Carrow Road and on our travels, Neil does have the ability to turn this season around. It is now paramount that City fans come together and collectively hope he achieves that.
The recipe for success with this squad is not difficult to decipher. Neil must play his best players. Klose – who, granted, has had some poor games this season – comes in on New Year’s Eve. City keep two clean sheets and thwart multiple chances. Hoolahan plays behind Oliviera. City look profoundly more creative, menacing and possess more direction in the final third. It’s just a shame it’s taken our manager 24 games to determine his most potent tactics.
His conclusion that Oliviera functions as our most efficacious attacking weapon has been a key one. Derby’s defenders resembled the French and Spanish ships defeated by our Portuguese striker’s namesake at Trafalgar 1805, appearing clueless to the dynamic threat of our summer signing.
To appropriate the famous command of Horatio from over two centuries earlier, City fans now expects that – like Oliviera – every man will do his duty.
Despite ardently believing – like most of us – that Neil was not the right man to galvanise this squad like he did in 2015 and achieve another promotion, my desire for him to do so has always been strong. The Scot possesses so much passion, energy and adoration for this club. He will not quit – he never will. We, as fans, need to get behind him.
After despondently departing the third of Griffin Park’s four pubs that occupy each of the ground’s corners, I encountered the City team boarding the bus home. After congratulating Timm Klose on a solid performance and having a brief conversation with the amusing Sebastian Bassong, out walked Alex Neil.
He looked pale, nervous. Naturally, he appeared tired and stressed after what was another disappointing result for his stalling City side. Primarily, however, he looked gutted.
So were we all. Cameron Jerome’s perpetual profligacy in front of goal has become something of a comedy now, whilst Robbie Brady’s polemical and undeserved red had altered the course of the game. City’s plight continued.
Neil needed reassurance. A friend and I disseminated our best wishes, supporting him and informing him we really hoped he turned the ensuing situation around. An hour early, he had marched from one side of the Griffin Park pitch to the other in front of a disillusioned and increasingly toxic away end, being serenaded with chants demanding his P45.
I meant what I said. He acknowledged my words.
Indeed, there is a significant difference between desiring a new manager and desiring the current one to continue failing. Whilst wanting Neil out for several weeks now, I have never not supported him and his team, never not wanted him to be the man to defuse the bomb that has been Norwich City’s impending Championship implosion. If there was to be one man who was to pioneer another City promotion, I would want it – more than anyone – to be Alex Neil.
And on Monday’s testimony, he may well be that man. This was City’s best performance for a long time, dominating an in-form Derby team saturated with a plethora of talented attacking options. Tom Ince, Jonny Russell and Matej Vydra were all thwarted. Our side were rampant, even before Jacob Butterfield’s wild horror-tackle on our most dangerous player in Wes.
So now we must build. Whilst the timing of the result – we don’t have a league game for almost another fortnight – may fail to facilitate any form of genuine momentum, it will surely enhance confidence amongst our side.
Yes, it was only one convincing victory that has come after a period of utter misery, but it’s a platform that was laid against a good side, putting an end to our dismal run of just two points accumulated against top ten teams.
I’m not getting carried away. City did play well, demonstrating the offensive menace, attacking cohesion and defensive stability that has been so conspicuously absent so far this season. It is only one game.
But one message from me: with our current board, Neil is here to stay, and to give our boys the optimum chance to succeed, we must now unite and support both them – and him.