Norwich: Sacked Alex Neil admits to regret over summer recruitment

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Alex Neil reflects on Norwich City departure

Alex Neil bears no grudges, but a sense of regret still lingers about his departure from Norwich City.

Five weeks have passed since the 35-year-old was sacked, with the team eighth in the Championship.

Scot Neil believes the squad was good enough to return to the top flight, but with the benefit of hindsight admits his mistake.

"We had a lot of players at the club for longer than five years, and we needed to start afresh," Neil said.

"Thirteen of the 24 players in the first-team squad were over 30, and when we went up the last time they were 28, which is significantly different, it's when you're at your peak.

"We needed to re-build and the one thing I blame myself for is that I re-signed all the players to get us back up because they'd done it in the past. I should have taken more time and looked to alter the squad at that stage."

An audacious appointment

Neil makes no concession to self-pity. He admits himself that while he was manager of Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Premiership, nobody would have predicted his move to Norwich, or then immediately guiding them to promotion to the Premier League.

At 33, he became the second youngest manager in the Championship, working with some players who were older than him, and plenty who had performed at a higher level. Neil, though, was typically unfazed.

He recalls his first words to the squad being to urge them to do better. The players's recollection is that it was more of a blunt ultimatum - shape up or ship out.

Results were immediate, with 17 wins from the remaining 25 games, including an unbeaten run of 13 away games, and then promotion via the play-offs.

Ipswich were dispatched in the semi-final, after Neil assured his players their opponents would run out of steam in the second leg at Carrow Road because they played at such a high intensity. Norwich scored twice in the second half and then defeated Middlesbrough in the final after Neil told his players that their opponents had only come back from conceding the opening goal once in four years. Norwich scored first.

Former Norwich City manager Alex Neil
Neil guided Norwich to victory over Middlesbrough in the 2015 play-off final

The reward was a windfall for the club, and a rise in status for the manager, but his job only became more challenging.

"People think you get £130m put in your bank account the next day, but that's not the case," Neil said.

"That money's broken down over the whole season. Norwich are self-sustaining and don't have anybody who invests. So my first signings were the first week in August, because the [play-off] money didn't drop until August."

Neil was capable of moments of audacity, such as guiding his team to a 2-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, but of the three promoted sides they invested the least amount ahead of the campaign and ended up dropping back down to the Championship, while Bournemouth and Watford remained in the Premier League.

'I wouldn't say I was harshly treated'

Neil believed he could return Norwich to the top flight and won eight of the opening 12 games this season. He suffered a run of six league games without a win in October and another run of five games without a victory in the run-up to his departure.

"It was a strange and difficult time for us," Neil told BBC Scotland.

"The away form was always poor, but our home form was relatively good. We beat Nottingham Forest by five, Brentford by five - they've just beaten Reading by seven - so they were always capable.

Norwich City players
Norwich are 10 points outside the play-off places

"We didn't have enough consistency. This group has more technical quality than the last group, but I'm not sure it's as resilient.

"I wouldn't say I was harshly treated. When you don't win games, your position is going to come under question. Looking at the squad, were we good enough to get ourselves up? Yeah, I would say we were.

"[Major shareholder] Delia [Smith] wasn't the one who told me I was no longer required. I spoke to [chairman] Ed Balls and Steve Stone, and I requested to go and speak to Delia in the boardroom upstairs, and I thanked her for everything she'd done and the opportunity, because it was a gamble.

"I've got no ill feelings towards anybody. I had plans to take it forward and my only frustration is that I've not had the opportunity to see that through."

Scouts 'won't come up and look at the talent' in Scotland

Neil won two promotions in four years, at Hamilton then Norwich, and believes his achievements are worthy of another opportunity in England. He has no plans to return to Scottish football, and admits the game he left behind is not highly thought of in England.

"It was like that when I was a player and it's just as bad now," Neil said.

"Even talking about scouting Scotland, they say, 'don't even bother', they won't come up and look at the talent. The English game regards itself as far and away beyond the Scottish game.

"It might be right in a sense off the field, but there are players in Scotland who can go down to England and do really well. Two of the lads I played with are a case in point - [James] McCarthy and [James] McArthur have done exceptionally well.

"There's no reason, given the right backing that some other kids could do the same."

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