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The rise of Alex Neil – From unknown to top flight history maker

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On April 11, I witnessed an explosion of fluorescent jubilation from 2100 travelling fans at the Macron Stadium.

Substitute Gary Hooper had just scored a dramatic injury-time winner against Bolton Wanderers to put his side, Norwich City back into the Championship promotion places.

The Canaries behind the goal weren’t the only ones in raptures; manager Alex Neil, his assistants, coaches and the subs all poured onto the pitch, jumping to and fro ecstatically.

Repeated chants of “We are going up!” ensued from the away end after the final whistle. But that optimism quickly turned into pessimism in the following few weeks.

Despite winning at Leeds three days later, Norwich were defeated at home to promotion rivals Middlesbrough, before being forced to settle for the play-offs, having drawn at Rotherham United the weekend after.

Ipswich Town, in an awkward two-legged East Anglian derby, stood in their way of reaching Wembley for the first time since 1985, but it always seemed that only one outcome would transpire. And it did.

Neil, who most Norwich players, let alone fans, had never heard of before he arrived at Carrow Road, took over from Neil Adams in early January.

Captain Russell Martin claimed: “For a few people there was a sense of: ‘Who is this guy?’”

Then, 11 points adrift of leaders AFC Bournemouth, 10 away from bitter rivals Ipswich and out of the play-off places, Neil had to perform a magical act.

However, straight from the off, the Scotsman was quick to stamp his authority on his new league, ending Eddie Howe’s side’s 14-match unbeaten run away from home, coming from behind to win 2-1 with ten men in his first match as new boss.

Neil and his side grew stronger and stronger, and so did talk of promotion. After spending three games assessing his new surroundings, Neil changed the structure of Norwich’s week, which certainly paid off.

The players’ day off was also altered following defeat to Brentford, as was the analysis, tactics and set-pieces of the club.

Such command could have upset such a set and interrupted schedule but it appeared to have impelled a side what some viewed as the Championship’s most gifted.

A side featuring players like Sebastien Bassong, Nathan Redmond, Bradley Johnson, Alexander Tettey, Cameron Jerome and John Ruddy.

Aside from Gary Hooper there is also a strong Scottish connection in Steven Whittaker, Graham Dorrans and Martin.

They all adjusted well to the Scotsman’s approach. Neil’s style, employed at his previous club Hamilton Academical, is helping him make a swift name for himself in the managerial world.

At New Douglas Park playing as captain, he seized the opportunity of leading the Accies back into the top flight after two years out.

Mentoring James McCarthy and James McArthur, who are both now playing in the Premier League and are worth a combined £20million, in Hamilton’s midfield over five years ago epitomises Neil’s competence of leadership and character. A trait he has kept from his playing days in management.

“We were just young boys coming through and you don’t really understand the game so Alex helped us, on and off the pitch,” said McArthur.

Hamilton shocked top flight regulars Hibernian in a promotion/relegation play-off, turning a two goal deficit from the first leg into a draw in the second, winning on penalties.

Neil drove on to guide Hamilton to top spot in the Scottish Premiership in October after beating champions Celtic on their own turf. The victory marked Hamilton’s first at Parkhead in 76 years.

The Lanarkshire club have since found it tough to deal with Neil’s absence. Martin Canning, his successor, took fourteen games (9 losses and 4 draws later) to conjure his first win as Accies’ new gaffer.

Finishing seventh and dropping into the relegation half after the league’s split, Hamilton would have been in a much worse position if Neil hadn’t achieved what he did in the first half of the season — leaving them when joint second.

The fall, at the turn of the year, in the club he spent ten years at illustrated how much of an influence Neil had on his players.

An impact so stark that it caught the eye of many down south.

Norwich were first to make contact with chief executive David McNally, who has extensive contacts in Scotland after his tenure as Celtic commercial director, convincing Neil. A decision turning out to be a very supreme one.

Neil’s attention to detail is impeccable and his fiery temperament has been key to his recent success. There is an impressive intensity to everything he does.

“His analysis of teams before the game and statistics and details means we go into games knowing exactly what we have to do. And if you don’t do it, you soon know on a Monday morning,” explained Martin.

Having started the season at Hamilton winning a league cup game against Arbroath in front of 730 people, Neil ended it leading Norwich back into the Premier League, after a year out, in front of over 85,000 inside Wembley.

Thanks to goals from Jerome and Redmond in a sensational opening 15 minutes from the Canaries, Neil’s side ran out 2-0 winners against Middlesbrough.

“I’m not going to be intimidated by anyone. There is a hell of a lot of hard work ahead of us to be competitive in the Premier League and I’m confident we will give a good account of ourselves,” Neil said after the game.

“There is no reason why we can’t do well. I’ve done it with Hamilton in Scotland when people didn’t think we could do.”

As he honoured the fans’ support in a lap round the sea of yellow at the national stadium after one of his side’s best performances of the season, Neil was lifted to the adulation by his grateful players, and deservedly.

Since the first time in its inception in 1992, the Premier League boasted no Scot in a managerial position at the end of this term.

But with that, unfolded an opportunity for a new Scot to rectify that famous tradition, and Neil grasped it, making history.

While perfectly combining the no-nonsense traits of his roots with a tactical understanding of the modern game, he becomes the first manager to take a team to the top flight in Scotland & England via the play-offs in successive seasons.

And at just 33 years old, currently studying for his coaching badges, five games short of a hundred in the head job and now the youngest man to ever manage in the Premier League, Neil has the potential to become something special.

Firstly, though, the chance of becoming the Premier League’s next big Scottish manager is staring him in the face.

Step up, once again, Norwich City’s now known Alex Neil.

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