Neil proving he has learned from failure with Canaries as Preston push for play-offs
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Ahead of an important match for Preston manager Alex Neil, as he faces former club Norwich City again, David Freezer finds out how the Scot has engineered a play-off chance with North End.
There were few voices of protest when Alex Neil was dismissed as Norwich City boss just over a year ago but now the Scot is looking down on the Canaries in the Championship table.
While City have embarked on a new style and system which was always teed up as a long-term project, their former manager has set about chasing a play-off place with Preston North End.
The man plucked from obscurity at Hamilton by former Canaries chief executive David McNally in January 2015 is still just 36 years old and could well have a successful coaching career ahead of him.
Many Norwich fans thought the straight-talking former Barnsley midfielder would go on and do well. It was the timing of his Carrow Road exit which soured things, deemed to be far too late in the season by the majority.
However, both parties have moved on and will always have that wonderful Wembley day of May 2015, when play-off glory catapulted Neil into the headlines.
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On Saturday he welcomes his former side to Deepdale for a game which will be crucial to his team closing their current three-point gap to the top six.
'The North End fans are very pleased with his work,' Dave Seddon from Lancashire Evening Post explains. 'Neil came in about a week into pre-season training but hit the ground running. While a slow start might have been feared, bearing in mind the change of manager and style, North End made a strong start.
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'Neil spoke very positively from the word go, moved the rhetoric on from just being pleased about being in the Championship to wanting to challenge higher up it. Only two players were signed in the summer window after his arrival, while in January three players came in and top scorer Jordan Hugill was sold to West Ham. So he is still putting his stamp on the squad.'
Neil replaced Simon Grayson, who went to Sunderland last summer after four years at North End, earning League One play-off success before establishing the Lancashire side back in the Championship.
Seddon added: 'I suppose every team starts off with some kind of play-off ambition and after successive 11th place finishes, the plan – whoever the manager was – would have been to push on and at least have some hope of making the top six.
'To have briefly been in the play-off positions in September and to now be within three points of them, perhaps Neil has even exceeded expectations.'
Neil, and assistant Frankie McAvoy, have already had one reunion back in November when Tom Barkhuizen cancelled out James Maddison's free-kick to earn a 1-1 draw at Carrow Road.
Interestingly though the Scot seems to have evolved, with his style last season seeing City score plenty but struggle to keep goals out, leaving them nine points adrift when Neil was dismissed.
After a 1-1 draw at Bristol City proved his final game in mid-March his Canaries team had scored 61 goals and conceded 54. Currently his Preston team, a month further into the season, have scored 54 and let in 45, suggesting that the Scot has tried to keep things a lot tighter.
'When Neil was appointed, plenty of fans expected basketball-type games – scoring lots and conceding often,' Seddon continued. 'But the stats show that North End's weak spot at times has been scoring goals, while defensively they've been pretty sound.
'So it has gone the other way from what happened at Norwich. He sees the team as a work in progress rather than anything near the finished product. His challenge is to get his team scoring more goals.
Three successive defeats looked to have nipped North End's play-off hopes in the bud. However, a 3-1 home win over Leeds and a 2-1 victory at QPR has Neil's team ninth and within three points of Middlesbrough in fifth.
With just four points separating Boro from Bristol City in 11th, an almighty battle for the top six is imminent, so a victory over his old team could play a huge part in Neil's rehabilitation.
'Neil inherited a strong dressing room spirit at Deepdale and has built on that further,' LEP reporter Seddon concludes. 'He has a lot of younger players and has used the older players well to guide them and pass on their experience.
'The team spirit has helped them get through a couple of sticky patches and may yet take them a long way.'
Given he has a squad containing few well-known players, and his play-off experience of three years ago, few Canaries fans would begrudge Neil his success.
That will not stop Daniel Farke's team, or the travelling supporters, wanting to put a spanner in the works though.
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