Yellow fever: Alex Neil teaches Norwich’s Canaries to sing a song of success
By Tom Simmonds.
After a shock defeat to relegation-haunted Wigan, Norwich City returned to winning ways with an emphatic 4-1 victory away to an awful Millwall side – and re-established the winning habit their new boss has instilled since his arrival in January.
Norfolk eyebrows were raised when 33-year-old Alex Neil was recruited from Hamilton Academical. His youth was one reason for scepticism; though Eddie Howe’s successes at Bournemouth and Lee Johnson’s deeds at Oldham – which impressed Barnsley enough to headhunt him as Danny Wilson’s replacement – have gone some way to calm age-old anxieties about inexperience.
The route Neil is walking is littered with casualties. Steve Lomas’s reward for taking St Johnstone to a third-placed SPL finish in 2012-13 and into Europe twice was the chance to oversee six disastrous months as Millwall manager. His team conceded 46 goals in 22 league games, and lost by a three goal-plus margin five times. Lomas’s predecessor at McDiarmid Park, Derek McInnes, fared slightly better in his time at Bristol City, steering them to Championship survival in 2011-12, but was sacked with them marooned at the bottom of the table in their doomed 2012-13 campaign.
Neil is not a man preoccupied with reputations, as his early achievements show. After leading Hamilton to promotion to the Scottish Premiership in 2013-14, his taste for iconoclastic results was seen in an away win at Celtic last October (which put Accies top of the table), and a 5-0 hammering of Lanarkshire rivals Motherwell on New Year’s Day.
Neil has taken this trait to Carrow Road; a win at table-topping Bournemouth in his first game serving as a calling card that was clearly not an empty threat, given that Norwich have won nine of his 12 games in charge so far.
When Neil arrived, Norwich were not terribly placed – they sat seventh – but Neil Adams’s reign was plagued by an inconsistency in which the quality of their squad would be on full display one week, but absent the next. After a good start to the season, which saw only one league loss in 11, a 1-0 defeat away to Fulham on 18th October ushered in a period of stuttering, indifferent form. This did for Adams, despite 5-0 and 6-1 home wins over Huddersfield and Millwall.
So why has Neil been able to hit the ground running? Norwich fan David Laslett thinks that it is a case of fresh eyes being needed to give them a push.
He said: “Adams was too nice, too naive and too much of a club man. Neil has shaken things up. You also can’t underestimate the importance of bringing Sebastien Bassong back in from the cold.”
What also cannot be underestimated is the quality of the squad that Neil has inherited. This is, frankly, a group that should expect to be promoted from the Championship if they do their jobs properly.
Against Millwall, minus the towering Bassong, and with Nathan Redmond left on the bench, Gary Hooper’s outstanding movement up front and the midfield dominance of Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson were too much for a team who have played as if relegation were inevitable since November. Judging by Norwich’s recent run, better teams than Millwall also have no answer to the yellow and green tide.
With second-placed Derby undergoing a serious wobble, Saturday’s meeting at Carrow Road provides another opportunity for the Canaries to steal a march on a major promotion rival. Neil has said that his eyes are on an automatic promotion place. With only one point between the top five in the Championship, this is not a fanciful ambition. Should they be able to move into one, you would back them not to relinquish it.
Norwich fans, do you think you will end in the top two come May? What has Alex Neil done to turn you from underachievers into a winning machine?
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Said it the day he walked in…this guy had something about him, and if he got thos eplayers working at 100% his job would be made easy. Honestly can’t see us finishing anywhere but top spot on current evidence. Other teams are wobbling, and they are looking at us with concern.