Barnsley reunion is all business for Norwich City boss Alex Neil
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Alex Neil's first competitive return to Barnsley feels less like a homecoming and more a chance to prime Norwich City for a festive Championship surge.
The Scot spent four years at Oakwell in a playing stint you sense from his pre-match comments on Friday left him with lingering regrets and unfulfilled expectations. Neil wants no such sentiments to infect his own squad this season as they strive to repair the damage from a wretched recent league downturn.
'I was young when I went there and looking back now I think I could have done better. Moving away from home was a big, big thing for me at the time and if I am honest I could have done better,' he said. 'The club was in transition at the time. We had something like six managers in four years, which I don't think builds any sort of momentum or continuity – we had a change in ownership, maybe two. It feels as if it was a lifetime ago. It is the first time I have gone back and none of the people from my time would be there now.
'They had a good side then. The year I went they had just lost in the play-offs. They had Bruce Dyer, Darren Barnard, Mike Sheron, Neil Shipperley, quite a few decent players. Do I look out for their results? No, I don't. Sometimes things just move on in football.'
Neil is an admirer of Reds' head coach Paul Heckingbottom's work at Oakwell, with the Barnsley boss another firm advocate of youth.
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'The oldest player is something like 28. They are young, enthusiastic, hard-working and industrious,' he said. 'They have some good players in their ranks. They have also sold the boy, Alfie Mawson, to Swansea, John Stones came from Barnsley and Mason Holgate, who went to Everton. They have nurtured quite a few. It is credit to him and the club.
'We will have to match that industry and work-rate, and that is no different every week. If we do then in terms of quality I would hope we have enough to hurt any team. We know what is coming our way, we have to focus on what we are good at and dictate the game at our pace.'
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Neil was at Oakwell recently to watch a 5-2 league defeat to Nottingham Forest, although highly-rated Irish midfielder Conor Hourihane underlined why he is being touted with a potential January exit.
'He has eight set-piece assists this season, which is quite considerable for a central midfield player,' said Neil. 'He has a cultured left foot but we'll see how he gets on because we have some good midfield players as well. Yes, I was at the Forest game and they were losing 3-2 at half-time and they didn't deserve to be. They were the better side. They haven't won at home for a while and I am surprised by that. They will want to get that monkey off their back, so to speak, but we have to continue in the same vein as the Brentford win. We needed that performance. We have been searching for it for the majority of the season to be honest. We know what we are capable of doing and we produced that.
'I thought it was by far and away the best performance of the season and some of the quality we showed was great. One game isn't enough. It is three points and we must kick on.'
Neil's key selection dilemma centres on whether to use the same personnel who superbly swept aside the Bees.
'It always is a difficult balance,' he said. 'We had been searching for a win and the lads who played against Brentford probably couldn't have done any more than we asked of them. Now we have to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Barnsley and make adjustments, if any. All in all with and without the ball we were excellent. We moved it as fluently and as smoothly as we had all season. We defended well and we stopped a lot of things at source with the boys higher up pressing the game well. Goals change games. We scored twice early on and then got a third so you are not having to do as much defending.'