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Alex Neil reaches 100 not out at Norwich City

PUBLISHED: 07:10 27 January 2017

Norwich City manager Alex Neil got his reign off to a winning start at Bournemouth in 2015. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd.

Norwich City manager Alex Neil got his reign off to a winning start at Bournemouth in 2015. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd.

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Alex Neil is rapidly turning into one of the game's great managerial survivors as he prepares to complete a century at Norwich City this weekend.

Wes Hoolahan scored a crucial penalty to seal an aggregate Championship play-off semi-final success over Ipswich Town. 
Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdWes Hoolahan scored a crucial penalty to seal an aggregate Championship play-off semi-final success over Ipswich Town. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

The Scot may never have doubted he would reach that personal milestone, given the public backing of the club’s top brass during the most testing moments of a Championship season which remains in the balance.

Neil’s 42pc win ratio compares favourably with any of his predecessors at Carrow Road but it is the perception as much as the numbers that leave him having to win back swathes of disgruntled supporters.

The Championship is the most volatile tier of his profession. The average lifespan in recent seasons has been a mere nine months before the churn claims another victim. Neil reached two years in charge earlier this month and if City beat Birmingham on Saturday the prospect of a belated play-off push gathers pace again.

Alex Neil guided the Canaries back to the Premier League at Wembley.  Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdAlex Neil guided the Canaries back to the Premier League at Wembley. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Much has been made of the parallels between the current predicament and the situation he inherited when he was unveiled by former chief executive David McNally in January 2015.

That opening comeback win at promotion rivals Bournemouth, after Jonny Howson’s red card prompted a change of scenery from the directors’ box to the technical area, was the start of a magical ride.

Neil swiftly got his message across and there were no dissenters as he reprieved the likes of Seb Bassong and moulded the disaffected into a fighting machine. Bradley Johnson emerged as a talismanic leader. Neil appeared to be one step ahead of his rivals. There was the thrilling late win at Bolton when he introduced both Lewis Grabban and Gary Hooper in a gambler’s roll of the dice that paid dividends when Hooper contorted his body to hook a stoppage time winner. That triggered celebrations in front of the away end to signal this was a team on the rise.

Norwich City bowed out of the Premier League at Everton. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus ImagesNorwich City bowed out of the Premier League at Everton. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Neil had managed to eradicate that pessimistic sense of impending doom that usually afflicts every football supporter. It was a joyous, uplifting period that culminated in a first win over Fulham since the 1980s, then a delicious play-off aggregate win over Ipswich Town. Neil was at the height of his powers; an adopted son of Norfolk. Wembley and all that entailed was the perfect storm. A cohesive, well-drilled set of players and a manager with a clear, unshakeable belief in his methods. Norwich coasted back to the Premier League.

But the fall since has been sharp and painful. The top flight optimism dissolved in a prolonged downturn which after a bright start to the Championship returned prior to Christmas. Neil is no longer acclaimed but castigated in many quarters. The manner he was berated against Huddersfield and since at Reading and Rotherham is the polar opposite to how he was feted before. That is the underlying theme of his century not out; black or white, good or bad, all or nothing. No shades of grey, little in between. Either leading from the front or trailing off the pace. That is a trend which shows no signs of changing as Norwich enter the defining phase of Neil’s second full season at the helm.

City’s home form in recent times is consistent but on the road they look vulnerable and lacking in fight to thwart the aggressive, physical intent routinely thrown up to knock Neil’s team out of its stride. He labelled last weekend’s 3-1 home win over Paul Lambert’s Wolves as a watershed, in terms of marrying the effort and endeavour required to undoubted quality. The 35-year-old went a step further and filed it in the same category as those storming performances of his first few months in charge. The steepness of the relative decline leaves many sceptical. But few would have bet on Neil still being at the helm prior to the festive spell. It may be wise not to rule him or his squad out yet.

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