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.
Sorry, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer. The jury is still very much out on Neil. A bad result at Rotherham and we will be back where we were. More worryingly I have zero trust in his potential dealings in the transfer market where he has to date had an appalling record. I do admit however if he can engineer a run of results as good as the last 10 or so have been bad then trust will be well and truly restored.
You have described a myriad of reasons why he should have been sacked, including that it has taken him 24 games to chance upon his best line up.
I’m not fooled by 75 impressive minutes against Derby. But (even more) time will tell i guess …..
Flying High (Not) says
Interesting column. Very nice to be able to enjoy a City performance again. I think Butterfield’s lunge was born of frustration because we were bossing the game, Wessi in particular. Board and manager deserve credit for getting Oliveira (not Oliviera!) in. I think we’ve struck gold there. Not just his finishing, but the flicks and vision in build-up play show genuine quality.
But it’s all a bit too little too late for me. We won’t play like that every week, so top 2 is out of reach, and the play-offs are a too much of a lottery. We’ve left ourselves with too much to do. If we can sign another good finisher as back-up for Oliveira I’d be a lot more confident, but that seems like a long shot.
Only a football fan could do quickly swing from one thought to another and it’s certainly not the best way to becoming a respected football journalist.
The facts of the previous few months remain and as yet it’s not been seen that Alex Neil will change his tactics over the long run. I fully expect to see Wes dropped, Brady reinstated, Bassong given another run and players benched for extended periods of time without any real reason.
Norwich have yet to prove they have the metal to come from behind and that spirit is a key driver for any push on the play-offs. If we go ahead the passing becomes crisper, go behind and the team crumbles.
I’m not sure how much sincerity I’ll see in your next piece that says it’s finally time for Alex to go again.
Gary Field says
Will, while, ultimately, it would be the manager who pays the price for failure, I still believe that it’s much more complicated than just picking the right players in the right positions.
There’s been far too many poor performances from the players, who have to, but probably won’t, accept some collective responsibility here. Monday was just a start in that respect.
sixtiesbarclay boy says
Wow. I am sorry but I support my team not a manager never have never will. He has done too little for me to change from wanting rid of him. Certainly one win won ‘t do that at all. We have been here before with Brentford and Villa games, when there is 4-5 good games on the board then I may keep quiet about getting him out along with the senile board. Until nothing has changed, the players put in a good shift and he grabs it by saying I set them up and do every week.. yea right you may do but something was different. Perhaps they are resigned to having to put up with him too.
Keith B says
“Neil – finally – picks his most effective team”
I think it’s only fair to point out that had Pinto and Howson not been injured for October and November, and Oliveira settled in a little quicker, he would have picked a team much closer to this some time ago.
But it’s a common sentiment that you express Will, as are similar comments seen here and elsewhere on the lines of “finally picking his best players and playing them in their correct positions”.
Does that mean we have finally seen the back of all the “Russell Martin isn’t a centre half” nonsense?
Zico1970: with the greatest respect I feel that you may have missed my point here – this wasn’t a ringing endorsement of Alex Neil and me suddenly stating he’s the greatest manager around, but merely an acknowledgement that the win against Derby is enough for Moxey, Delia and co. to keep him in the job for at least another few weeks. Whilst I’m still not convinced he’s the man to lead City forward – I would love to see a manager like Rowett or even the much-maligned Hodgson owing to his success at Fulham and West Brom – I’m simply stating that he’s going to stay in the job now so campaigning for his sacking is futile: instead, we should unite as fans and back both him and the team. Trust me, I am still not an enormous AN fan, but Monday restored some degree of hope that he may – and that’s a big may – have the ability to turn it around. Regardless, my principal point was that he’s not getting sacked any time soon, so let’s collectively support him. Hope that clears things up.
Michael D says
It’s a good article Will, and I respect your attempt here to be both supportive and to achieve balance.. and in that you echo a lot of my own feelings. I also would love to see Neil succeed – again – at City, and have also despaired at his tactics during this long losing spell, including his stubborn failure to bring back Klose earlier, and play Wes more regularly, even if managing him carefully.
It is also clear that the Board are not going to sack him now, and certainly not before the dye is cast as to whether we can make the playoffs or not at the season’s end.
Picking the right manager is about getting the combination of passion and experience right. Neil joined us with the passion rather than the experience, and it was the passion that carried us back into the PL. Since then his lack of experience has kicked in… but if he can learn, and I believe he can, then sooner or later that digested experience should enable him to improve his decision making and match that better with the passion he still clearly possesses.
Personally for me the passion still counts the most, but Neil now has to show that he has learned sufficiently for him to match that sufficiently with tactical and managerial ability. I’d still like him to have a better deputy – Ian Culverhouse’s role with Paul Lambert still tends to be underestimated – but at this point, as long as Neil shows he is learning and can play his right players and be more adaptive… then I’m happy to support him. If he can’t sustain this turn around though, then of course bets are off, and that is all I read Will as saying too. I’d rather too Neil succeeds than fails and believe our club will be better for it (rather than just going for the potluck of bringing in a new manager now).
Fair point Will and yes does clear things up. My main concern with Alex is that he seems to believe in his own hype and one win will not see him lose his inflexibility.
A number of changes for Derby were forced on him, it’s when he has a full squad he seems to struggle to pick the right side.
What utter drivel. Neil has is the most tactically inept Norwich manager I have ever seen. He has been allowed to waste £50m on players of which he doesn’t play and persists with petty squabbles that prevent playing his best team.
martin penney says
#4 Zico 1970: yes, I largely agree with you; the fundamental issues remain but I enjoyed Derby as much as Will did and IF Alex Neil can sustain that level of performance then we may yet rise again. Not this season, I fear, although the play-offs remain a possibility.
Being older and more cynical than Will I am yet to be convinced about the Board’s desire and ability to take us forward, but the fact remains that we had eleven apparently hungry players on the pitch, which was refreshing in itself.
If Will becomes a football journalist – he writes superbly and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, even I managed it – objectivity will set in. You rarely manage to write about the Club you support:-)
Over-eulogising probably. But a good read nonetheless, which is what it’s surely all about.
Andy Head says
Great read Will – I think a lot of us are in a similar place at the moment. While it’s too early to grasp at the straw of one victory the signs are encouraging. Whether by luck or judgement Wes and Klose returning has made a world of difference as has Nelson’s coming of age as a City player. I think 90% of fans would love to get back on board with Alex Neil but he has to show he’s learnt from previous mistakes.
9 – Michael: I think any of us would have learnt something after being in a job for two years.
He is lucky he joined a Club that has indulged him by giving him so long to make mistakes.
I still don’t trust his judgement on so many things, and question his man management ability too – which to some extent people either have got or haven’t got in their character.
Cyprus Canary says
One of the problems of being young Will ( I think I can just about remember) is that your opinions tend to sway dramatically from one extreme to another. One of the few benefits of age is that you tend to take a longer period to express those opinions and perhaps therefore achieve a more balanced view. In my view, Alex Neil is not the man to take us forward. Why? Because he has failed to make the grade for 12 months now and whilst I can support him in his inexperience and youth, as I do you, I cannot accept the fact that he has shown no sign of learning in that time and he continually simply blames the players for not doing their jobs. If Jerome had been fit would Oliveira have played? If Brady was available would he have played instead of Olsson? When I can see this evidence of improvement in man management and tactical awareness then I might change my mind. To me NCFC is what matters and I want what is best for the club. One welcome, excellent performance will not change my long held view that AN doesn’t have what it takes to take our club forward. I enjoyed your well written article and the comments as usual and if our opinions may be different our aims remain the same.
Thanks to all for reading and some kind comments. In response to Smiffy (11) and Cyprus Canary (15), what I wrote – as I commented earlier – was far from me expressing my fervent support of AN, but instead a simple acknowledgement of the fact that he won’t be getting sacked any time soon so it’s now important we accept that and get behind both him and our team. Whilst the Derby performance may have shown some signs of promise I’m still far from convinced by a manager who’s demonstrated so many signs of weakness over the last couple of months! My point was fundamentally that the Derby win has safeguarded his position for the next few weeks at least, so campaigning for his P45 is now pretty much a futile cause. Instead, let’s support him and his team and hope we can push on from what was a very good performance.
Dave H says
Will, I had come to the same conclusion that you explained in your article… and again in comments 8 and 17. It’s clear to most that Neil should have been sacked but for whatever reason the board won’t and it’s certainly not close now. Recent performances indicate if nothing else that the players haven’t given up on him. Many had already written off this season, we might as well give them the best chance of success through creating a more positive atmosphere
Congratulations to all on an excellent article and thread.
The amount of deep thinking and should searching that accompanies the support of Norwich city football club is second to none.
As I previously stated, I took the derby game in splendid isolation, thoroughly enjoying the endeavour, the goals, the general standard of play, the atmosphere more than at any time this season. I have no idea where this leaves us in terms of the situation involving the manager and our poor league position.
The performance was so out of character and at odds with expectations it has muddied the waters somewhat. Much more of the Derby levels are needed, much, much more, a return to the previous dross would surely see a further erosion and deterioration of the general mood.
If a miracle should occur and a complete turnaround in results materialise the financial expediency which kept Neil in situ may yet have a silver lining.
However, for me and I suspect many others, the ownership and their cronies are seen for what they are and beyond the redemption that a vast improvement in results could bring.