First off who would blame him? I mean the Black Country is certainly no comparison to the South Ribble, but, at West Brom, Alex Neil will be given a healthier pay packet, financial backing (relative to Preston) and an incredible chance at gaining promotion through the playoffs for the second time in his career. That is some CV he is writing.
You’ve got to remember that the ambitious Scot is still just 37-years-old, meaning Preston are a mere stepping stone in his career. Like any other manger, Neil will be desperate to see his name in lights as a successful Premier League boss.
After two “if only” seasons with PNE, Neil may well believe he has hit the ceiling with the Whites under the current ownership regime. Therefore this change would seem like a logical option. But there are a few major gambles the Scot would be taking if he snaps up this job.
First off, the pressure.
Albion have spent most of their footballing life in the top tier of English football. This includes 24 consecutive seasons from 1949 to 1973 – thanks Wikipedia. They’ve also just come off the back of eight continuous seasons in the Premier League and with many of the same personnel still within their ranks, the Albion faithful expect immediate results, hence the sacking of Darren Moore. A decision which probably wins the award for ‘Most Bizzare Sacking of the Season’.
But Darren Moore is just one part of a bigger picture. West Brom have gone through nine managers in the last decade, compared to Preston’s six. Clearly the directors at the Albion are much quicker to swing the axe giving a man like Neil next to no room for maneuver. If the Baggies miss out on promotion this time and if Neil doesn’t hit the ground running in August, he could find himself in murky water come December.
A quick scroll through Twitter shows that a team like Preston are in the blind spot of West Brom, some of their fans complaining that an appointment such as Neil would be “dross” and “underwhelming”.
But for Preston fans, many see Neil as one of the better managers of recent history.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride in the past decade which has seen us endure torrid spells under Mr. Sunbeds (Phil Brown) and Mr. Medals (Graham Westley) but we’ve also enjoyed resounding success too under the more traditionalist tutelage of Simon Grayson.
Undoubtedly, then, Alex Neil has breathed fresh air into the youthful ranks of Proud Preston. His pressing style and modern tactical nous are a far cry from the defensive pragmatism of Simon Grayson, who, to put it on record, I highly rate too.
Alex Neil likes his teams to work tirelessly, attack quickly and most importantly play attractive football. After all, football is about entertainment. And if we are to ignore Saturday’s debacle, he is an incredibly driven man with a meticulous attention to detail.
He has maintained a professional front throughout his time in Lancashire, refusing to deviate from the official line. He very rarely cracks a smile and is the sort of fella you probably wouldn’t enjoy a cold pint with, but he has been likeable in a nuanced way.
His dour mood and earnest outlook have made him charming in the sense that he has turned Preston into a club of hardworking, honest professionals. There’s no bullshit and what you see is what you get.
Where Neil may come unstuck at WBA will be with their players, who may perceive themselves to be above him due to their slightly older average age and hefty price tags.
One thing I always remember Norwich fans underlining when he was sacked at Carrow Road was his man-management ability with the more mature players, the players with the big egos. AN is brilliant with a young and malleable squad, but perhaps struggles a bit more with those bigger egos.
At Preston too he has also been accused at times of poor man-management. Refusing to drop his favourites has been a common criticism. The Rudd/Maxwell saga which saw Maxwell depart in January, probably as a result of a falling out with Neil. His failure to drop Barkhuizen following a string of dire performances. Leaving new recruits on the sidelines. And perhaps a portion of blame can be attributed to Neil for his failure to properly deal with Ben Pearson’s notorious ill-discipline.
All that said and done, having watched West Brom a few times this campaign, I do believe Neil’s style suits their play. They have a similar average possession rate to PNE and an almost identical defensive record; both sides have kept a similar amount of clean sheets too. Where they differ, however, is goals scored. WBA are much more effective in front of goal, having scored 81 goals so far this season: that’s 21 more than Preston and a stat that will certainly turn AN’s head. In fact, West Brom are the only English side in the top four divisions to boast two players with 20+ goals this season – Gayle (21) and Rodriguez (21).
We saw evidence of this on Saturday. Preston looked naive and blunt going forward, whereas Albion attacked at a frenetic pace, moving the ball within intricate triangles and pushing forward in numbers. They were by no means world beaters, but they were clinical and that’s what you need at this level.
They have the core of a top tier team and with a summer of austerity incoming, Neil is the ideal candidate to aid the Baggies in their financial cutback. He is a manger who will have no qualms in axing those surplus to requirements, instead opting for young, raw talent which he can nurture and develop.
Admittedly, I have no knowledge of the West Brom youth setup, but this is definitely a reserve that Neil will tap into. My one deep concern would be Neil cherry picking our top talent. Alan Browne is one such player, Browne himself lauding Neil for transforming his game. Others include Storey and Davies, the most promising young duo in the division. If Neil chooses to poach these players, owner Trevor Hemmings will have to either reinvest or ensure they are offered suitable revised deals. But let’s not think about that just yet.
Anyway, this is all said presuming Neil is leaving, with rumours circulating that the switch will be announced on Monday. If it doesn’t happen, well, you tell me. I’ll hide away for a couple of months and wait for it all to blow over.
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