Paddy Davitt verdict: Money, power and politics. The court of Alex Neil
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The reign of wee Alex is over. City's top brass must now outline their blueprint for the way forward after a turbulent era. PADDY DAVITT reflects on Neil's exit.
Let me set the scene. It’s roughly two months after Alex Neil was carried aloft on the Wembley turf after an epic Championship promotion odyssey that climaxed in a stirring play-off final win.
The ink on Neil’s new contract was still wet. City had acquired a young, hungry alchemist of a manager who galvanised a set of under-performing players to surge up the league table.
Dumping Ipswich Town out in the semi-finals on the way to the arch was a delicious side dish that appeared to cement Neil’s place in the hearts of Norwich City fans. ‘Born in Scotland, son of Norfolk’ was the sentiment unfurled on a banner at Portman Road, if I am not mistaken.
Or words to that effect; the hazy glow of those sun-kissed memories has faded dramatically in the intervening period. Replaced with a toxicity and a bitterness that threatened to drag the football club into a prolonged spiral of decline.
But I digress. Sat at Colney in the visitors’ lounge, Neil held court with a select band of local media. Pens were down, recording devices were switched off. It was an honest, open, frank exchange of the type that became Neil’s stock in trade. Even to the bitter end, with that combative display in the wake of last weekend’s Sheffield Wednesday debacle and Cameron Jerome’s post-match barbs regarding a lack of respect towards the management; a charge that visibly appeared to wound Neil, given it cut to the heart of a failing regime where the leader had seemingly lost too many of his followers.
There were no such storm clouds back in that sweet summer of 2015. Then it was could the Canaries hold onto such a prized catch? A line of enquiry we put to man himself in that intimate Colney setting. Would the lure of bigger clubs with much bigger budgets and deeper pockets lure Neil away from Carrow Road?
The 35-year-old was unequivocal in his response. He acknowledged he was in a volatile profession but insisted he was not out for a fast buck, that he could only spend so much anyway and football and his family were Neil’s only passions – not material excess.
In Neil’s world view, Norwich was a place where he could build a footballing dynasty, mould a club in his own image, free from interference from on high. A place where he could have total control over transfer policies and recruitment; an oasis at the elite end of the English game free from short-term thinking and knee-jerk reactions.
The saddest aspect of this divorce is that Neil was unable to reach his footballing nirvana.
Just imagine if the Scot’s soaring trajectory had continued in such an upward curve what that ride would have felt like? How thrilling the ascent for a support base basking in the cash-rich hinterlands of the Premier League against the best players, the best teams and with a global platform to transform Norfolk’s finest sporting institution.
That was the dream. That was Neil’s plan. The reality was brutal and nightmarish. We can pick through the carcass again, review the poor recruitment decisions and the tactical naivety that Neil himself outlined, once relegation from the Premier League was confirmed last May.
Perhaps it is better to remember the good times now; the derby dominance, the bullish self-confidence, the tingling feeling in those first six months when he arrived from unheralded Hamilton and the possibilities were boundless.
The sense of unity and common purpose in the first phase of Neil’s tenure will perhaps prove his abiding legacy. It crystallised in a one-sided Wembley triumph that will stay with all those lucky enough to be in attendance as part of a wondrous yellow and green carnival.
Neil deserved better than a shabby ending. He could have had few complaints had the board acted during a prolonged pre-festive downturn.
But Friday night’s departure, just hours after the Scot mapped out his plans for the summer and re-affirmed his belief he was still the right man to re-pay the loyalty of the club’s owners, left a sour aftertaste.
Alan Irvine takes charge for Blackburn’s Championship visit on Saturday. The futures of Dean Kiely and Frankie McAvoy remain unclear.
Clarity is a priceless commodity now. This season is a write-off but City’s top brass must deliver on the pledge contained in Neil’s P45 statement, regarding a new footballing structure.
One of the Scot’s parting soundbites at his farewell press conference was to underline how big this summer is. Neil’s empire may have dissolved in angst and infighting amongst a fractured dressing room. But a new consensus must emerge from the blood-letting.