To stand in the bowels of Wembley on Monday evening and hear Norwich City’s triumphant players discuss their play-off defeat of Middlesbrough was to find one very clear explanation forming for their emphatic 2-0 win.
Alex Neil was barely known in English football when he was appointed as Neil Adams’ replacement in January. But it was his drive, his meticulousness, his focus, his standards and his preparation which transformed the team, propelling them up through the Championship and into the Premier League. Delia Smith, the club’s majority shareholder, said on Monday evening that Neil should be knighted and it was not difficult to see why.
The plan to beat Middlesbrough, to overwhelm them and shut them down, had been hatched a long time ago. The Boro manager, Aitor Karanka, may be Jose Mourinho’s protégé but it was Neil who out-thought and outplanned him.
“His tactical awareness of other teams, and his preparation is second to none, by far the best I’ve worked with,” said goalkeeper John Ruddy. “To say that of a 33-year-old manager, who has come from the SPL, is a credit to him. I’m sure his planning for next season will start tomorrow.”
The defender Martin Olsson revealed just how much Neil had done with the players, and how important it was to them. “We did the game plan on Tuesday,” he said. “We were sitting in the video room for an hour. We’re not used to that as players. But we’ve been doing that since he came in.”
Norwich would probably have been promoted automatically had they not lost 1-0 at home to Middlesbrough last month, and Neil was absolutely insistent that there would be no repeat. “We watched the match of when we played Boro at home about 10 times,” Olsson said. “Just looking at what we needed to do better and where they were stronger. And it worked out.”
Neil is fairly unknown as a manager in England. Olsson said that, in drive and standards, there was a reminder of one of his old managers at Blackburn. “He’s pretty similar to Sam Allardyce,” Olsson said. “A bit tough and wants his players to work hard. Of course, it’s a different kind of football, but mentally and the way he wants us to work hard is a bit similar.”
The highest praise, though, came from Sébastien Bassong, whose career has been resurrected by Neil. Bassong fell out with Adams and, at the start of the season, was loaned out to Watford. When Neil came in, everything changed.
Bassong told the whole story: “The first words I had with him when he pulled me into his office was: ‘I don’t know what happened before and I don’t want to know. I need you in my team. I need my best player in my team and I will work with you, so if you’re up for it, then we will work together.’ I shook his hand and that was it.”
Since then Bassong has been excellent, a tower of strength at the back for Norwich. His partnership with Russell Martin is something that Norwich must build around next season if they are to stay in the Premier League next season.
“He came here with such confidence and football knowledge,” Bassong said of Neil. “And he is Scottish so he’s got great heart. You can’t mess with him. He’s straight, he’s a fair man. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it. He was the kind of manager we really needed to get us going and get promoted. It was a perfect fit.”Reuse content