Premier League Clubs Managed: Norwich City (2015-2016)
Still only 36-years old, Alex Neil has only begun his managerial journey and has the drive and determination to once again reach the limelight of being a Premier League manager.
The experience he gained at Norwich City will only help him going forwards and even if his reign in Norfolk ended with the sack in March 2017, Neil did achieve a surprise promotion via the play-offs and got his chance to pit himself in the top-flight against top-class managers like Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini.
He is currently employed by SkyBet EFL Championship side Preston North End and with the club among the play-off chasing pack this season, the fiery Scotsman could be back sooner rather than later in the Premier League.
A loyal Hamilton man
In his playing days, Alex Neil spent the bulk of his time in Scottish football, joining Airdrieonians on a free transfer in 1999 after a brief youth stint with Dunfermline Athletic. He scored five times in just 16 appearances with the club playing in the First Division.
Having the confidence to try his luck in England, Neil moved to Barnsley less than a year after making his professional breakthrough. He made 121 appearances for the Tykes across four years, experiencing the disappointment of relegation from the First Division in 2002. He was a regular figure in Barnsley’s teams in Division Two though before spending one campaign with Mansfield Town.
However, it was his time at Hamilton Academical where Alex made his most positive strides, both as a player and eventually, a coach. Having been made surplus to requirements at Mansfield by former England international Carlton Palmer, Neil signed a two-year deal with Hamilton in 2005 and become a loyal member to the team for the next decade.
In 2007-2008, he won promotion to the Scottish Premier League with them, scoring a spectacular 40-yard free-kick against Stirling Albion which was voted as the club’s Goal of the Season. He remained as a player on Accies’ books until the start of 2015 but by then, he had already cut his teeth into management.
At the age of 31, he was given the full-time managerial role at New Douglas Park in May 2013 after a brief stint in interim charge. Hamilton had slipped back into the First Division but Alex quickly made amends for this. Having narrowly been edged out to the Championship title by Dundee, they recovered a first-leg deficit in the play-offs and embarrassed Edinburgh giants Hibernian on their own patch on a penalty shootout to earn promotion to the Scottish Premiership, relegating Hibs in the process.
The form continued on their return to the top-flight. Neil guided Hamilton to an amazing 1-0 victory away at mighty Celtic in October 2014; Hamilton’s first win at Parkhead in 76 years. He was going places and English clubs were taking note.
A successful gamble by the Canaries
Norwich City were only mid-table halfway through the 2014-2015 Championship season. They had dispensed with club icon Neil Adams and looked to be only a distant challenger for the play-off positions in their first season back in the second-tier following Premier League relegation.
The Canaries decided to take a gamble and approached Hamilton, who allowed Neil permission to speak to the club. The opportunity was simple too good to ignore and in January 2015, Alex cut his ties with Hamilton and took the vacancy at Carrow Road, ending his playing career in the process too.
He made a brilliant start. 24 hours after his appointment, Norwich beat league leaders AFC Bournemouth 2-1 to revive their stuttering season. In 25 matches, Norwich won 17 times and only a late-season home defeat to Middlesbrough meant they were pipped to automatic promotion by AFC Bournemouth and Watford. The play-offs beckoned and with Neil’s experience from the Scottish system, that bode well for the Norfolk team.
Local rivals Ipswich Town were beaten 4-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals, setting up a final at Wembley Stadium with Middlesbrough. On the day, Norwich were hungrier, better and sharper than their opponents. First half goals from Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond ensured a 2-0 victory and they were returning to the Premier League at the first attempt of asking.
At 34, he would be one of the youngest managers in Premier League history. The sky seemed to be the limit for Alex Neil. However, tougher times did lie ahead.
Learning the hard way
The early signs in 2015-2016 were encouraging for Norwich City. They beat Sunderland 3-1 in their first away match; defeated AFC Bournemouth by the same scoreline and a Russell Martin equaliser earned them a hard-fought point at Anfield against Liverpool FC.
The Christmas programme saw them claim a famous win at Old Trafford and home victories over Aston Villa and Southampton. With nine points from four games, Norwich had one of the best festive programme points returns for the season – only bettered by Tottenham Hotspur and equalled by Arsenal.
The New Year was less successful as Alex began to learn the hard way the trials and tribulations of Premier League management. Norwich went on a damaging run of form, losing eight of their next 10 matches, including a 5-4 home defeat to Liverpool FC. Even the January arrivals of Steven Naismith from Everton and Timm Klose from Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg couldn’t halt the slide in form that left their Premier League status in severe jeopardy.
Back-to-back wins over West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United did briefly leave them masters of their own destiny but a 3-0 home defeat to relegation rivals Sunderland and survival specialist Sam Allardyce left it out of the club’s hands. Despite beating Watford 4-2 in their penultimate match, Norwich were relegated after Sunderland’s late rally got them out of trouble.
It was a crushing disappointment for Neil and one he wouldn’t recover from. Despite losing just two of the first 12 matches back in the Championship, Norwich dropped from 2nd in mid-October to 12th by Boxing Day, losing 5-0 at Brighton & Hove Albion along the way. After a 5-1 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in early March, former Labour Shadow Chancellor and new owner Ed Balls decided a change was needed and ask Neil to clear his desk.
He was only out of the game for four months though and when Simon Grayson decided to leave Deepdale to try his luck unsuccessfully at Sunderland, Preston North End offered Alex the opportunity to get back into football management. He has proved it was a wise appointment. Preston have lost only six times this season and sit 7th in early February 2018, just six points adrift of the play-off positions.
Alex Neil has enjoyed the highs of beating Celtic in Scottish football as a manager and the ultimate low of Premier League relegation but he has dealt well with the knockbacks and has plenty of time left to make a positive impact on the Premier League – should that be with Preston North End or with another team in the future.