Paddy Davitt verdict: Alex Neil is Norwich City’s changing man
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
When you reach rock bottom the only way really is up. But it still requires special reserves of character and self belief to resist the temptation to fold.
Promotion, promotion, promotion now looks a viable alternative to a Championship season that had lurched horribly downwards after Norwich City's efficient start to life outside the Premier League.
Alex Neil and a squad of players clearly good enough to compete at the top end may still have cause to rue a run of eight defeats in 10, but that is the past. Now they are answering every critic, meeting every challenge put in front of them.
Shedding two points at Wigan was a source of huge frustration but two wins either side of that gruelling trip to the DW Stadium, earned in vastly different circumstances, is a more accurate reflection of the current direction of travel.
Neil insisted recently he had learned nothing he did not already know about himself as a man and a manager. He also acknowledged he would emerge stronger, better equipped, for suffering the most hellish spell of a managerial career still in its relative infancy.
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The unstinting support of City's top brass during that spell is out of kilter with the short term, knee jerk environment that grips Neil's industry. Where every decision is questioned by fans and media alike, when every selection is pored over and used to berate the Scot with the benefit of hindsight, where every response from the terraces is seemingly tinged with genuine anger and frustration.
Neil could count on top-level backing through the darkest passages. Performances like Nottingham Forest pay back another small instalment.
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Neil no longer prowls the technical area with the air of a man buffeted by events and unable to alter the negative flow of a season which felt in freefall. City have been increasingly confident and measured on the pitch since the turn of the year. But the Scot also appears to have re-discovered the bullishness and the brooding resistance that marked him out as the primary candidate to replace Neil Adams.
The City chief is getting more right than wrong. Here again, Alex Pritchard's inclusion alongside Wes Hoolahan was a masterstroke. The duo teased and tormented the Reds.
Neil's management of Hoolahan's body and the need not to put any undue stress on the Dubliner is another facet of his craft the Scot appears to have conquered.
Jonny Howson's sublime volley was the trigger for a magical afternoon's entertainment. Neil spoke of value-for-money. It was that and more for a fan base who have had to endure epic lows.
Even Neil's soundbites are increasingly laced with a surging self-confidence. The 35-year-old appears happy to routinely engage Championship rivals on their terms and publicly back his better players to prevail. That was the mindset that underpinned league wins over Wolves, Birmingham and now the former European champions. It was why Nelson Oliveira partnered Cameron Jerome up front against the Latics in a contest that prioritised brawn over brain on a difficult pitch in a half-empty stadium on a windswept winter's night in deepest Lancashire. A duel that contained a 20-minute spell after the interval which served to inject a healthy dose of realism into City's nascent revival.
Neil's squad will not get everything their own way from here on in. Demolition days like Nottingham Forest are to be savoured, not just for the majesty of the goal output but the feeling of liberation. This game was effectively won the moment Hoolahan conjured a wonderfully instinctive long-range finish 18 minutes in. There will be many more tests like Cardiff and Wigan, but Norwich showed enough at both to suggest Neil's squad have bulked up with the additions of Mitchell Dijks and Yanic Wildschut. But there is also a different mindset. The point of no return was reached over the festive period; improve rapidly or face stark consequences. Few would have thought Jez Moxey would depart before Neil. But the Scot is the great survivor at Carrow Road.
Talk of turning corners can wait until May. Norwich have put themselves back in the promotion mix. City face all six of the clubs ahead of them between now and the final reckoning. Newcastle's pending visit is a chance to set the record straight after that late carnage at St James' Park. But more importantly it can send a signal to the rest that Norwich mean business. Neil and his players appear emboldened. There is no going back now.