How Alex Neil's career has readied him for his biggest challenge yetIn the second of our 'Flight Of A Canary' series, we delve into the career of Norwich City manager Alex Neil. To read Wes Hoolahan's story, click here.
Occasionally after training at Norwich’s Colney base, the first-team staff will come together for ‘football-tennis’.
A small court is marked out, with two teams of three or four locking horns. They try to limit the game to an hour, but the competitive natures of the participants mean an allowance is made for overtime.
Grouped together more often than not are the former pros: goalkeeping coach Dean Kiely, lung busting ex-City midfielder Gary Holt and the manager, Alex Neil. Up against them? A brave line of challengers, usually led by Frankie McAvoy: Alex’s trusted confidant and in football terms, the man who knows him best.
"We’ve only managed to beat him and his team once in about 600 games! He goes off his head when he’s losing, he detests it. He can’t take it, if I’m being honest," says McAvoy.
It’s serious business. Overhear a game and you could easily mistake it for just another training session on the Colney turf, so piercing are the vocal spars and the bellows of delight or despair.
Victory comes when the talents of those involved are maximised through organisation. That organisation is achieved via clear and concise on-court instructions. It’s unsurprising, then, that Alex – having shaped his best team and led from the front – always ends up triumphant.
Management is a 24/7 obsession with this one method of switching off, but in a way football-tennis sharpens the tools for his job, another outlet for the fierce competitor.
Alex Neil, the youngest manager in the Premier League, is a winner. But as he’s searched for a way to keep Norwich City among world football’s elite, he has had to adapt to losing. With eight matches remaining his team’s fate hangs tantalisingly in the balance.
Between now and May a telling part of his tale will be written, though the story so far is worth revisiting.
From a solid family upbringing in north Lanarkshire, through his honest graft as a player in the Football League to stumbling upon his professional sanctuary at Hamilton Academical, the journey has moulded the man – a man Norwich City now boasts as one of its own.
When Bellshill Maternity Hospital closed its doors in 2001, its significance in Glasgow’s 20th century was reflected on. As the most recognised specialist unit in the city and its urban sprawl, a range of notable Scots took their first breaths at the BMH.
Sheena Easton became one of Britain’s most successful female singers of the 1980s, Paul McGuigan directed television and film hits while John Reid and Robin Cook each held office for New Labour during its last term of government.
What marked the hospital out even more, however, was the number who would go on to have very successful careers in sport, and in particular football. Alexander Francis Neil was born there on June 9, 1981, following on from, among many others, former Canaries Peter Grant and Malky Mackay.
Because of this, Bellshill – a town of a population ten times smaller than Norwich’s - has a distinction as a hotbed of football talent. Every future player or coach from there has, as befell Alex, had its most famous son, legendary Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, referenced in their biography.
Yet Alex actually grew up in Coatbridge, another town south of Glasgow around three miles from Bellshill. His mother Anne-Marie and her partner Davie still live there, with Anne-Marie the deputy head teacher at its St Monica’s Primary School. It’s there where Alex featured in his first football team.
Peter Hetherston is a former player with over 350 appearances for sides north and south of the border. He also had spells managing Raith Rovers and Albion Rovers, the Scottish League One club based in Coatbridge. More relevantly, he lives next-door to the family home.
"Alex and I were next-door neighbours for a long time, from when he was a young boy. His mum still lives next-door to me, so any time he’s up the road I have a chat with Alex and it’s always nice to catch up with him,” said Hetherston.
"They are good family people. You only have to look at Alex’s mannerisms and the way Alex conducts himself. They are a quiet family who keep themselves to themselves, Alex was well brought up and he was a very educated boy. Where he came from has given him a great standing.
"He’s from a big family with lots of aunties and uncles, and they’re a well-liked family. That helps as well. They looked after Alex and supported him in every way. His mum still goes to every game home and away, and we look after the house."
The residents of Coatbridge are proud of their own, so upon Neil moving from Hamilton to take over at Norwich in January 2015, a new legion of fans was created. There is now a small corner of suburban Glasgow that, every Saturday, turns its support to wherever Norwich City are playing that afternoon.
"For Alex to go down there and be a Premier League manager – everybody talks about it, and now everybody looks out for the Norwich result. It’s a Celtic-mad town but then it’s about how Norwich go after that,” laughs Hetherston.
"That’s because Alex put himself on the map."
Standing at 5’8”, for Alex Neil the player to have any chance of beating his opponent to an aerial ball required precise reading of its flight and immaculate timing with his jump. Yet nine times out of ten, he would get there first.
A combative midfielder, Neil’s strength was his ability to foresee how a situation would unfold before anyone else on the pitch. This knack, allied with his leadership, resulted in him often taking command of his teammates from the middle of the park. "He was a real leader on the pitch, a fiery character." says Frankie McAvoy. "His strength was leading and organising on the field. If he had more pace, he would have played at a higher level. His reading of the game was magnificent."
Just two weeks into his sixth year at school, Neil left to join the Academy ranks at Dunfermline Athletic but he made his professional debut for Airdrieonians in 2000, where financial mire, which eventually caused the club to be liquidated, left them with no choice but to place their faith in youth and loan players. An 18-year-old Neil came on as a 64th-minute substitute in a 2-0 home defeat to Falkirk on January 3, a game that also featured future City stopper Paul Gallacher between the sticks.
Neil has since said that the 16 competitive matches he played that season changed his career, but it was a quirk of fate in the summer of 2000 that led to him leaving home and moving down to England, where he would spend his formative years as a professional.
Neighbour Hetherston picks up the story: "I recommended Alex to move down to England for a friend of mine, Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett, who was the Barnsley manager. Harry’s a big pal and I’d seen Alex play for Airdrie, and the main thing that caught my eye was his enthusiasm and his drive on and off the park. It was there for everyone to see.
"I played in England myself so I was very friendly with Harry, and I used to recommend Scottish players. Alex was one of the ones I recommended, Harry didn’t come up and see him or anything. He signed though and it launched his career in a bigger way than it would have done up here."
Bassett was gone from Barnsley within six months, however – upheaval the norm at a club that between 1998 and 2006 appointed eight different permanent managers and plunged into administration in 2002 following the collapse of ITV Digital and its multimillion-pound broadcast deal with the Football League.
It certainly wasn’t the most suitable learning environment for a young footballer trying to make his way in the game, but he remained steadfast in his ambitions and his strength of personality shone through. It wasn’t unusual for the fresh-faced Neil, with characteristic clarity of thought, to be forthright in offering his opinion to senior players in the Oakwell dressing room.
One of those players was Mike Sheron, the Barnsley striker who earlier in his career had spent a short time at Carrow Road. He was the Yorkshire outfit’s record signing after moving from Queens Park Rangers for a fee of £1.5m in 1999.
He says: "Alex wasn’t shy. If he wasn’t happy he’d tell you, and he’d tell you often! Sometimes you thought ‘you’re only a young lad, what do you know?’ but he knew his football and he’s gone on to prove that. There was an upheaval in managers at Barnsley, it wasn’t ideal, and you needed good football people around and Alex was one of those. He just wanted to do the best he could irrespective of who the manager was; he had pride in his own performance and he’s taken that into management.
"He tried his best every day in training and during matches, and I’m sure that’s what he expects as a manager now. We gave Alex the respect he deserved as a young lad trying to make a living in the game because he applied himself very well. Initially things didn’t go too well for him, but every single day was the same. He did the same stuff and he developed."
Neil established himself at Barnsley, becoming a reliable fixture in the squad for four seasons while at the same time refining his natural inclination to lead. He grew into an influential figure in the dressing room, helping new faces such as Garry Monk and Jonathan Walters settle into the team.
He made an admirable 132 appearances for the Tykes, but was let go amid the backdrop of more changes to the hierarchy of the club in the summer of 2004. Neil joined Mansfield Town, but despite picking up three Player of the Season awards during his first campaign his face didn’t fit with the new boss Carlton Palmer, and in 2005 Neil, still only 24 but with girlfriend Kristine desperate to move back to Scotland, was left pondering his next step.
There are few highlights to recall about Norwich City’s FA Cup exit to Preston North End on January 3, 2015. Described by Neil Adams as a ‘nothing game’, his team huffed and puffed on a freezing winter’s afternoon at Deepdale, with Paul Gallagher’s second half brace clinching a spot in the Fourth Round for the League One hosts.
Adams felt a change was needed for the club to reignite its push for promotion back to the Premier League, so on the following Monday he handed in his resignation. First-team coach Mike Phelan took temporary charge as the Board at Carrow Road began an immediate recruitment process to find City’s 39th permanent manager.
"When there is a change of manager, it’s straight away about who’s leading the betting markets and who’s been linked before. People with a connection or history with Norwich are always linked if they’re doing well with their respective clubs," explains Paddy Davitt, chief Norwich City writer for the well-respected local newspapers the Eastern Daily Press and the Evening News.
"You always want to try and second guess what the Board are going to do because they always keep it in-house and until it’s official and ready to go, they don’t tend to publish too much. This time, it more came from the Hamilton end and it was a case of thinking straight away that this was very brave from Norwich to go down this route."
Alex Neil’s appointment was confirmed at 10:58am on Friday, January 9, just over 24 hours before the Canaries faced a challenging match on the south coast against Eddie Howe’s high-flying Bournemouth. The choice was notable for two reasons: unusually, his was an unfamiliar name to the large majority of the club’s supporters. Secondly, aged only 33, he became the second youngest manager of any of the Football League’s 92 clubs. In a coincidence, the youngest was Adam Murray at Mansfield – a former teammate.
At 12.30pm, Neil was unveiled to the press in a revealing media conference at Colney alongside the club’s Chief Executive, David McNally. "I remember the press conference and how confident he was. We all knew his back story by then but even David McNally called it a ‘left-field’ appointment. Obviously you do your research, but to be brutally honest I didn’t have a clue who this guy was,” explains Davitt.
"He was super confident though. You thought that maybe the conference was something David would’ve led that day because he’s the man who got all the cameras there, but there were one or two occasions where Neil really took the lead and answered some difficult questions. He was going to take things in his stride and we soon found that out that weekend against Bournemouth, which passed into legend."
The 2-1 win at the Goldsands Stadium played out in a series of what could have been scripted moments: Neil took his seat in the Directors’ Box while Phelan and Gary Holt patrolled the touchline; Matt Ritchie slammed Bournemouth ahead; Gary Hooper brought City level. Then, Jonny Howson’s dramatic second half red stacked the odds against an opening triumph.
Neil saw fit to take charge of a situation that could have spiralled out of City’s grasp. He appeared suddenly in the dugout and reorganised his ten men, moving Alex Tettey to right-back and shuffling Cameron Jerome onto the left-side of midfield. When Jerome curled home the exquisite winner ten minutes from time, the players celebrated like they knew their season’s momentum might just have turned.
‘According to today's Daily Record, we have signed ex-Airdrie and Mansfield midfielder Alex Neil on a two-year contract. If the story is true, this would be a good signing for Accies, as Neil has been able to hold his own and play at a decent level in England, not to mention a level that could be argued as being vastly superior to the Scottish First Division. We'll just have to wait and see...’ – a post on an online Hamilton Academical supporters’ forum, dated May 21, 2005.
To best make sense of how Alex Neil would go on to prove such an inspired choice for Norwich City, it’s essential to examine his near-decade long association with Hamilton Academical: the club and place where he found his home as a player, thrived as a captain, flowered as a coach and emerged as a manager.
Upon leaving Mansfield, Neil’s instinct was to stay and integrate himself further in the English game. When he learned of Hamilton’s interest, he initially wasn’t too enamoured by the prospect. Hamilton had just placed Billy Reid in the manager’s chair, a former player who had only two short spells in charge at Clyde on his résumé. The Accies best scalp was eliminating Rangers from the 1986-87 Scottish Cup and they hadn’t played in the country’s top flight for 17 years.
Following a meeting with Hamilton’s owners, Neil was persuaded to join Reid at New Douglas Park. Within three months, he was made captain. Three years later in 2008, they were celebrating a championship and promotion to the Scottish Premier League. The pair worked in tandem: Reid in the dugout, Neil his trusted on-field lieutenant, but success wasn’t restricted to just results on the pitch.
Hamilton were committed to developing their own players and in midfielders James McCarthy and James McArthur, they had two special talents in their midst. Neil had a considerable impact on their rise, and each now stars in the Premier League; McCarthy at Everton and McArthur for Crystal Palace. Observing Neil’s influence all the while was the Accies’ youth coach, Frankie McAvoy.
He says: "Billy had always thought we’d get Alex into coaching, and he started with our Under-17s and our Under-20s when he was recovering from injury, and I worked alongside him there. To be honest, he was excellent. You could see that right away and he was desperate to do well. He had that real steeliness, and he showed it at that level too.
"When he got the opportunity in the first team, I was asked my opinion and I had no doubts that Alex would go on and do well as a manager."
The moment arrived in April 2013, when Reid’s eight-year tenure came to a close. Neil took interim charge with McAvoy and they oversaw victories in five of Hamilton’s remaining seven matches. That May, it was announced that Neil would assume the position of player-manager on a permanent basis.
What happened next has been well chronicled: Neil inspired them to promotion in his first full year in charge via a sensational comeback play-off triumph over Hibernian, after seeing off Gary Holt’s Falkirk in the semi-finals. The Premiership wasn’t insurmountable either, with a 1-0 win at Celtic – Hamilton’s first there since 1938 – thrusting his achievements to a broader audience.
When he departed for Norwich, Hamilton were a miraculous third in the table and only four points off the summit. Tears were shed by many when he said goodbyes to players and staff at the training ground. For ten years, Alex Neil and Hamilton had been the perfect match, the loyalty and vision of one pushing the other to greater and greater heights.
Alex had made it his home, but the time had come to spread his wings.
Working in football you occasionally meet people who carry with them a certain aura, and Alex, without any doubt, falls into that bracket.
As a person he is always polite, but in whatever environment you encounter him you detect the burning energy that has driven his success. He’s someone who has confessed to not being comfortable with small talk, which fits with the sense that everything he does, he does with purpose. It’s a functionality that suits the everyday business of a football manager.
"Even when you’re sleeping, you’re thinking about football," says Frankie McAvoy. "That might sound a bit clichéd but it’s true. When you’ve got a day off, you’re thinking about sessions and preparing for the next opposition. Your mind is constantly on the go. You never get a chance to relax. The only time you do that really is when you’ve got a holiday at the end of the year, but even then you’re looking at things. It’s non-stop."
Though for all of his immense dedication, crucially he weds it with an intelligent methodology to his work. Neil doesn’t allow emotion to dictate his decision-making – he’s an expert at narrowing in on each game and its own merits rather than getting bogged down in a wider narrative. Plenty have made reference to the forensic analysis of the opposition and his penchant for detail, yet perhaps Neil’s most impressive skill is communicating that mine of information in both a lucid and motivational way to his players.
"The one thing he’s always been good at, and a lot of people probably don’t realise this, is that once the game is finished, over the next day or two he gets it out of his system and then once it’s done, it’s done and then we look forward to the next game."
It was Neil’s full range of techniques that served him so spectacularly well during 2015’s extraordinary run of 17 Championship wins out of 25. His biggest challenge was always going to be transmitting his messages in time to turn Norwich’s ailing campaign around, but by Wembley, the players ‘Alex Neiled’ Middlesbrough with such panache it felt like he'd been around for years.
"He just treats players with the respect they want because modern management isn’t about the stick or the carrot; it’s about knowing your players and what’s going on in their head," Paddy Davitt adds.
"He would say himself that he’s still got so much to learn, but what set the Brian Cloughs apart, what set the Alex Fergusons apart? Were they tactical geniuses? Probably none more so than their contemporaries in those eras, but they could inspire a group of players and they could get them playing for them, and this guy can do the same."
In the wake of City’s shocking 6-2 defeat at the hands of Newcastle in October, Alex Neil did a rare thing for a manager at the elite level. Speaking with the press, he made an admission that his call to replace Alex Tettey with Wes Hoolahan was wrong and that it cost his team the game. At the moment of the change, they were 3-2 down but in the ascendancy. Four minutes later, it was 5-2.
Neil is never at ease spinning a cautious approach as the best approach because his modus operandi is well established. "Alex’s philosophy is to keep the ball and try to create as many goalscoring opportunities as you can, and then when the opposition have got it it’s to try and win it back as quickly as you can by defending high up the park," details McAvoy.
By autumn, an aggressive and confident Norwich City team had assessed what the Premier League had to offer and not been found wanting. Two games prior to that afternoon at St James’ Park, they had played some their most swashbuckling football of the season in a thrilling 2-2 draw with West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground, only Cheikhou Kouyaté’s late goal denying them what they deserved. Convincing wins over Sunderland and Bournemouth were already on the board.
Alas, the division soon sunk in its claws. October’s home defeat to West Brom – where City had 61 per cent of possession and twice as many shots as their visitors – was the main catalyst for a change in tack from Neil that yielded an ugly but timely 1-0 November victory over Swansea.
In the intervening months, he has worked tirelessly to rediscover his team’s identity while, much more importantly, trying to pick up results on the field. A wretched run in 2016 has left City, now in March, with the final picture nervously uncertain. That which remains undiminished, however, is the resolve of their manager. "There’s a hunger in his eyes. He wants more, not less. He always wants the next game to put it right."
The charge of keeping Norwich City in the Premier League ultimately lies at his door, but a career with an upward trajectory, powered by his own conviction and courage, has more than readied Alex Neil for his biggest challenge.