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Our next fan letter is from someone you might be familiar with in Twitter user, @jimmy_smallwood.
“At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”
So said Bill Shankly, whose name adorns one of the stands at Deepdale and whose ongoing presence at North End, as a consequence, seeps into the experiences of fans whenever they travel to watch a game.
When we had fans at games, of course.
That belief of Shankly’s – that it’s the fans, the footballers themselves and the man on the touchline that sinks a team or makes it swim – is indicative of a manager so driven that his success 35 miles away at Liverpool echoes down the ages.
His disdain for the upper echelons of a football club, the men in suits, is telling. His environment was the boot room, not the boardroom.
No longer can a manager exist at a club without the backing of the Chairman and his advisers. Football’s results business ends in sackings, resignations and recriminations in every season, and is as much a part of the mood music of the modern-day game as transfer speculation, kit launches and tabloid scandals.
The current incumbent of the Deepdale dugout, 39-year-old Alex Neil, was something of a coup for Preston when he joined the club in July 2017 following the departure of Simon Grayson, whose travails in Sunderland so scarred his managerial reputation that he’s not had a decent job since. Bossing the Black Cats is a stain on so many managers’ CVs it’s a wonder anyone thinks they are equipped to take it on and turn it around.
Neil joined North End at a point when we had re-established ourselves as a solid Championship outfit after an unhappy period in the League One wilderness. Grayson’s time in charge can be classified a success, given he achieved his stated aim of promotion back into the second tier. His departure paved the way for the club to appoint someone with experience of achieving that crucial next step – getting a mid-ranking, middle-sized football club into the Premier League.
In Neil they had just such a character – he’d hauled Norwich into the top flight in May 2015 where they stayed for just a single, doomed season.
Now looking for work, as much as North End wanted Neil he also needed Preston. Many’s the managerial career spent job-hunting for so long you become an irrelevance and are overlooked for future employment. Just ask Alan Curbishley, whose last gig at West Ham ended in 2008 and who pulled out of the race to succeed Mick McCarthy at Wolves in 2012 and has barely been seen since.
This isn’t a piece, though to examine the success or otherwise of Neil’s tenure at North End – look elsewhere on this site or listen to the From the Finney podcast for that. There have been ups and downs and, if we are honest, more downs than ups in 2020.
There’s a school of thought that North End’s recent poor home form of 1 goal scored and no points collected would have resulted by now in barracking from the stands. Covid has hit North End’s fortunes hard on the pitch – our promotion-chasing form of last season halted in its tracks by the national lockdown. We have not been the same since.
Shankly had the support of the suits at Anfield because, frankly, he kept winning. For Neil, in my opinion, his relationship with the board at Deepdale is more perilous, and not just because of recent form.
It feels as though he’s never warmed to the club and the club has never warmed to him. On the recent, extended, episode of the From the Finney podcast with Peter Ridsdale – North End’s “advisor to the owner”, has there ever been a more 21st-century role at a football club? – the Leeds-raised wheeler-dealer extolled the manager’s work ethic and determination:
“He is the hardest-working manager I have ever worked with in my career. His attention to detail and tactics are as good as anybody I have met… he is the most focussed, hard-working manager I have worked with in all my time in football.”
High praise indeed. And yet…
As in any job, at the outset of a working relationship a key factor has to be trust. Whether it’s a publican wondering if the student he’s hired will still be working shifts for him in a year, or Nasa asking Apollo 13 astronaut Ken Mattingly if he’s got measles, trust is at the heart of decision-making. Without it, likely those at the top won’t devolve responsibility to those underneath, and those underneath will soon feel stifled, restricted and not respected.
Take the transfer saga at North End these past few months which, until the club splashed out on Emil Riis, threatened to seriously poison Neil’s relationship with the Lilywhites’ hierarchy.
Earlier this season, in a post-match interview with BBC Radio Lancashire, Neil was asked why Daniel Johnson had not featured in the game. The suggestion was that the influential midfielder was destined for Glasgow Rangers. Neil’s response, terse and forthright, was telling – he was fed up and made no attempt to hide it:
“No DJ on the teamsheet today – can you update us as to why?”
“OK… talking of players, I trust you’re still actively looking to bolster the squad as you said after the last game at the end of last season?”
“Are you close to any?”
That was that.
"No DJ on the sheet today, can you update us as to why?"— BBC Lancashire Sport (@BBCLancsSport) September 13, 2020
"No"#Preston North End boss Alex Neil declines to comment on the whereabouts of midfielder Daniel Johnson.
Monday from 6 ➡️ https://t.co/JyeAMUYxYh ⬅️ #pnefc / #bbcfootball pic.twitter.com/ABPlBCRQ1V
It was clear Neil was fuming, not just about a run of poor form but what he perceived to be a lack of incoming transfer activity and the danger of damaging outgoings.
Transfer spend by Trevor Hemmings has been a bone of contention at North End for many a year now. In some ways it has intensified under Neil’s reign – when Jordan Hugill departed the club for a reported £9 million on Deadline Day in January 2018, the boss might have reasonably expected a fair chunk to be reinvested in boosting his squad. That spend was not forthcoming, and it took until Riis joined last month for the club to recruit a halfway-decent like-for-like replacement up front.
Neil’s previous experience of the transfer market, at his preceding club Norwich, had him able to spend, spend, spend on the likes of Timm Klose from VfL Wolfsburg for a fee reported to be £8m, Steven Naismith from Everton, also reported to be around £8m, Robbie Brady from Hull City reportedly £7m, and Alex Pritchard from Tottenham Hotspur for a reported £8m. He’s soon found that, in comparison, Sir Tom Finney Way isn’t paved with gold.
The chief spend by Preston during the time of Neil has in fact been infrastructural, in the shape of the Euxton Training groud, which unless the manager succeeds in getting his side promoted to the Premier League is likely to be the real lasting legacy of his tenure.
“This opportunity [to buy Euxton] came our way,” Ridsdale explained on his second podcast appearance with From the Finney, as reporters, including From the Finney, were invited into the classy new training setup purchased on the cheap from financially floundering Wigan Athletic.
How did North End come to buy it, oval dressing room, two plunge pools and all? “I spoke to the boss [Hemmings] about the opportunity and the cash, and despite the fact we are in the middle of a pandemic he didn’t hesitate.
“I think this is a £10 million facility had we built it, which we bought at a fraction of the price… we have spent money on it, making it right and proper for us.”
It is clear the club’s owner feels more comfortable funnelling his cash towards the purchase of a long-overdue high-quality training facility than a Neil-requested full-back or even a Jordan Hugill replacement.
Why is this? After all, inaction in the transfer market holds the potential to seriously imperil not just North End’s chances of promotion from the Championship but, if results go badly, even our survival in the league itself. And there also remains the uncertainty surrounding the future of the club’s biggest stars, many of whom we are led to believe have been locked in contract renegotiations for months with seemingly very little progress.
Revealingly, an anecdote Ridsdale told From the Finney in his first podcast interview exposes how mistrust and a certain coolness has defined Neil’s relationship with the higher-ups from the off. It all related to his applying for the North End job following Grayson’s departure to Sunderland when Neil was out of work having been sacked by Norwich:
“Alex was available – though at the time we thought he was more freely available than he was. There was still an outstanding compensation clause with Norwich City, which precluded him working until the September.
“To the credit of Delia [Smith, the celebrity chef and Norwich’s owner], she was outstanding. She waived that payment to allow him to start with us.
“It was a bit of a shock, once we’d offered Alex the job, that he broke to us the news that he had this clause… I suppose it was the timing Alex that chose to tell me. He waited until we’d offered him the job before he told us! Probably thinking it might put us off…”
It’s possible Neil’s version of events might differ to Ridsdale’s. It is also possible that this is actually quite common in contract negotiations in the weird world of football.
But it feels remarkable that seemingly one of Neil’s first acts when joining North End was to withhold crucial contractual information until the club had committed. It seems hardly a way to develop a trusting, well-functioning relationship with your bosses.
And it leads one to conclude that, from the outset, Neil’s relationship with Hemmings via Ridsdale was dented. It would explain the hierarchy’s seeming unwillingness to fund major transfer sprees. It might also explain key members of the squad holding off on putting pen to paper. And it could also be at the root of Neil’s bouts of evident surliness and frustration with his lot in the Deepdale dugout.
Flawed relationships between managers and their boards are nothing new in football. For a tracksuit-clad coach still in his 30s, dealing with the likes of Ridsdale and Hemmings is doubtless not the favourite part of Alex Neil’s job.
But some canniness and an ability to cajole, charm and persuade those at the top of the North End tree to part with some cash during transfer windows, and offer generous contractual terms to star players, is a skill required of a football club’s manager.
At North End, Alex Neil has learned that working with the Board is just as important as coaching the playing staff. As the old maxim goes, you need to manage up as well as down.
Fundamentally, a manager’s relationship with a club is defined by whether he has a functioning relationship with his Chairman. Even Shankly himself found this to be the case, in the end. In 1974, when he had decided his time at Liverpool ought to come to an end, it was the Chairman at Anfield he had to inform.
“It was the most difficult thing in the world when I went to tell the Chairman,” Shankly writes in his autobiography. “It was like walking to the electric chair. That’s the way it felt…”