I’m delighted for Alex Neil at achieving promotion for Norwich City just a few months after joining and transforming them. Alex was groomed for the Hamilton Accies job by former boss Billy Hamilton for years before being given the position as a 31-year-old two years ago. Billy would talk him through training games, “Reds are being overrun, would you do to change things?” I listened into some of this, but in football it’s never apparent what’s being absorbed and what’s slipping through the cracks.
Lots of credit has to go to our former commercial head, David McNally, who took as Norwich chief exec six years ago, in the wake of departing Neil Doncaster. McNally spent much of season 2013-14 dangling the Sword of Damocles over Chris Hughton, before sacking him with relegation looming, then sacking his replacement, Neil Adams, whose only previous coaching role was as a Norwich youth coach.
Fresh from having to admit a mistake in appointing an inexperienced manager, it was unfathomable that McNally gambled on Alex Neil. Last season Neil got Accies into the play-off final against Hibs, where they lost the first leg 0-2 at home. At that stage his achievements were no better than could be expected, but Terry Butcher was master tactician at opponents Hibs.
Ahead of the second leg Butcher spoke to his players about post-match celebrations. The only thing anyone at Hibs could celebrate after the game was Butcher’s resignation. Six months of spectacular overachieving with Accies this season was enough for McNally to see something special in Alex Neil. It was a breath-taking gamble which worked.
Norwich’s gamble has echoes in our own, in appointing Ronny Deila, but Celtic had a bit more form to judge. When I asked a Norwegian journalist about Ronny last summer he actually compared Stromsgodset wining the league to Hamilton Accies winning the SPFL. Ronny had six years, not six months, of pretty spectacular form to study before Celtic made their offer.
Ronny and Celtic know they are working to a medium-term plan and that short-termism isn’t going to get in the way. Such planning is a luxury in football, and isn’t something Celtic enjoyed when they were caught in an arms race with a liquidation-bound opponent. Norwich might just have learned enough self-awareness to know that next season’s target shouldn’t be survival, it should be medium-term development, even if that means accepting the short-term pain of relegation.
I read yesterday that Real Madrid have sacked a manager every season they failed to win a major trophy since Alfredo Di Stefano’s side finished second in La Liga, and were losing finalists in the Copa’ Liga, Copa del Rey and Cup Winners’ Cup, the latter to Aberdeen. Medium-termism at Real is counted in weeks, not seasons. Being intolerant of short-term failure is incredibly wasteful.
Alfredo was sacked a year later.