There’s a saying in football that you’ve probably all heard before – “play for the name on the front of the shirt, and they’ll remember the name on the back.”
Alex Neil hasn’t featured as a player for Preston North End, but it’s clear for all to see that he gave absolutely everything for that famous Lilywhites.
This piece is my attempt to try and put a positive light on Alex Neil’s time at the club. Something to try and move away from some of the negativity and have a reminisce about the good times we have had as a club during Alex’s tenure.
Our former gaffer has always stood out to me as someone who just ‘gets it’, and by that, I mean that he understands us as fans.
He understands the culture of the club, the history behind the club and the expectation on his shoulders, and most importantly, I felt that he understood the fact we’re a club in a working-class city with fans who deeply care about Preston North End Football Club more than anyone.
For many people, Preston North End Football Club means everything.
The 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon are what allows us to forget about every stressful event of the week and whilst for the last year at least, things have been very different, Alex Neil always recognised that and in my opinion, has wanted to provide this club and its supporters with the success that us as fans have been crying out for.
The First Chapter
Where else to start than the first day of pre-season training, 2017. Simon Grayson leaves Preston North End to become the new manager of Sunderland, and in came Alex Neil. The man who had already experienced promotion from this level officially joined the club on the 4th July 2017.
Neil’s first league match was against Sheffield Wednesday at a packed out Deepdale stadium, a side who the season prior had lost in the play-off semi-final, not the easiest of encounters for your first game in charge. A converted Daniel Johnson penalty meant that North End had their first three points on the board and it was the first time they won their opening league game since the 2008/09 season.
It was a promising start for Neil as his side were floating around the play off places with memorable wins against Cardiff City at Deepdale as North End ran out 3-0 winners and then away at Birmingham City where a second-half turnaround saw us move up to 4th in the table.
September 2017 also saw a last-minute winner in Yorkshire. A last-gasp Callum Robinson header from close range saw North End beat Hull 1-2 and it was clear then, to me at least, that North End were thriving under the Scot.
A fantastic end to 2017 came as we went unbeaten in the month of December. The final game of the month saw a performance live on Sky Sports as we travelled to South Wales to face Cardiff City. The game looked destined for a bore draw until Tom Clarke popped up late on from a corner to send the travelling fans wild as well as the thousands watching at home or in pubs.
Gentry Day Debut
As the season progressed and North End continued to flirt with the play-offs, it was time for Alex Neil’s first Gentry Day as Preston North End manager as his side made the short trip to Horwich as we faced Bolton Wanderers.
The day also marked the return of Irishman Sean Maguire after missing a number of months with a hamstring injury.
We found ourselves 1-0 down before Tom Barkhuizen dragged us level with an equaliser before Seani announced his return with two close-range finishes. We all celebrated Gentry Day and what better way for Sean Maguire to return from injury than with a brace to secure a derby day win?
A Season to be Proud About
Despite North End going unbeaten in the last 5 games of the season, it wasn’t quite enough. We missed out on the final play-off spot which was claimed by Derby County on the final day of the season despite sealing Burton Albion’s fate and confirming their relegation to League 1.
But the future looked bright for Alex Neil and many believed he would be able to go one better in the next campaign and finish in the top six after finishing his first campaign with a remarkable 73 points.
The following campaign didn’t get off to a great start, only winning 1 of our first 10 league games which left North End bottom of the table, but a run then followed with just 1 loss in 12 games which saw us rise up the league with some important victories along the way.
The Pride of Lancashire
Alex Neil and his men claimed the bragging rights in Lancashire derbies on a number of occasions during his time at the club. That all began properly in the 2018/19 after Wigan and Rovers were both promoted from League One and it started with a 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic. We followed that up by beating Blackburn Rovers 4-1 at Deepdale and that came complete with a certain Callum Robinson celebration.
It was the beginning of what was a fantastic record for Alex Neil in Lancashire derbies which saw his North End side emerge victorious in 9 Lancashire derbies throughout his time at the club. Alex frequently reminded us that he knew what these matches meant to the fans, and he certainly knew how to motivate his players for them as they delivered time and time again.
Nottingham Forest (A)
December 2018 saw one of the great away days under Alex Neil when North End travelled to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest.
We were up against it, but when the chance came in the second half, Louis Moult was on hand and slotted it away to send the travelling fans into pandemonium.
It was described by many as a tactical masterclass by Alex Neil who really united a fan base with a performance that perfectly summed up the club and its fanbase at the time. People hated losing against us because we were considered to be smaller than the majority of sides in the league and we certainly didn’t have as big a budget.
But, we all loved that and it certainly felt as though Alex Neil was the same as all of us fans – #teamslikepreston.
Time to Believe
The end of that season our performances on the road were brilliant, including a 1-4 win away at QPR, a resilient 0-2 win away at Stoke, derby day victories at Bolton and Blackburn respectively and finally a famous night on Teesside away at Middlesbrough.
A very late header from Jayden Stockley at the Riverside Stadium saw North End pick up their 6th straight win on the road and move within 2 points of the play-offs as North End fans began to believe.
3 days on from the away win at Middlesbrough, Birmingham City came to Deepdale. It was in the 94th minute when Sean Maguire headed home to gain another crucial three points for North End and make the fans really start to believe that the play-off dream might finally become a reality.
After the game, Alex Neil came out with a statement that has stuck with me ever since, you can read it in the tweet below.
🗣 “We go under the radar because nobody cares about Preston apart from those invovled with Preston, but we don’t care. We care about the club and the fans know how it is and that’s all that matters to us.” #pnefc pic.twitter.com/3r1LvaMtPX— From the Finney (@fromthefinney) March 16, 2019
This quote is up there with probably my favourite thing about Alex Neil’s reign at the club because it epitomises everything about Preston North End Football Club, the fans, the City of Preston and the people of Preston.
We’ve always been a small club overachieving, we’ve had one of the smallest budgets in the league for the entire time we’ve been in the second tier, but we’ve more than held our own in that time.
Hearing a team’s supporters complain that they should be beating a ‘team like Preston’ was music to our ears, and I reckon Alex loved it as much as we did. He didn’t need the respect of other teams, he had the respect from the supporters and seemingly the players as well. It seemed like they never failed to praise the gaffer when they had the opportunity.
As the 2018/19 season faded out in disappointing fashion, North End looked ahead to the 19/20 season with lots of optimism.
North End had one of their best starts to a season, certainly since I have been supporting the club. Alex Neil and the lads had turned Deepdale into a fortress and it took until early December for North End to lose at home when West Brom scraped a 1-0 win after the awarding of a controversial penalty by referee Oliver Langford, a name that will crop back up later on in this piece.
But During those early months, there were a number of memorable matches. In early October, North End were rampant in the game against a struggling Barnsley side as we ran out 5-1 winners and even Ben Pearson getting on the scoresheet.
A Derby Day to Remember
Then on October 26th 2019, a very famous derby day win took place at Deepdale against local rivals Blackburn Rovers. I’d like to briefly mention that this game holds a very special place in my memory as there was a minutes applause in the 25th minute for my late grandfather, a minute which is fondly remembered by my family and I. To be honest, it was an emotional moment and will stay with me forever.
But after just 11 minutes, North End were 0-2 down and looked terrible. However, a first half substitution from Alex Neil which saw Jayden Stockley enter the fray turned the game on it’s head and three second half goals saw North End complete the most unlikely of comebacks and win 3-2 in a packed out Deepdale.
“We’re Preston North End, We’re Top of the League!”
8 days on and it was a trip to the Capital, live on Sky Sports to face Charlton Athletic. The game was a 12 o’clock kick off on a Sunday, but that didn’t stop nearly 1,000 North End fans make the trip to London. The game finished 0-1 through a Paul Gallagher penalty and that was the first time since 2006 when we’d reached the summit of the Championship.
The game was around the time that Alex Neil had been linked with a move to take over as Stoke City boss. Neil was asked about his feelings towards the club after the match and he replied: “I am Preston North End manager. I love being here, I love working with my team and we crack on”.
The manager had pride in his players and the project he was leading, yes there was going to be bumps along the way and there were plenty prior to that point, but little old Preston North End were top of the league, and Alex Neil had united a fan base. Sadly, something we seem to be a million miles away from at the moment. That season, he and his players really did fill the fans and the community with the belief that we could perhaps achieve something special.
Well, that was until…
In March 2020, the country was put into lockdown and we haven’t been to a live football match, barring one or two of us, since then. I think we can all agree that the team haven’t been the same without fans there. The home form has suffered and we’ve struggled to get going in a large number of games.
There were still some memorable games during the lockdown period including beating Sheffield Wednesday 1-3 where three late goals from three substitutes looked to have put us back into the mix for a spot in the top 6.
Sadly though, last season faded away which was all too familiar and it was another mid-table finish.
During this campaign, there hasn’t been much to shout about.
A fantastic comeback against Brentford saw us pick up our first 3 points of the season. Goals from Scott Sinclair, Sean Maguire and Brad Potts meant that despite being 2-0 down at half time, we managed to win 2-4 on our first visit to the new Brentford Community Stadium.
“Pass it to Steve Cook, he’s…”
In early December, North End were victorious against Bournemouth in what was an unbelievable win with three top quality goals.
Two great team goals in addition to a long range lob from Scott Sinclair proved to be too much for Bournemouth to come back from. Another highlight of mine from this game was the now infamous quote from Ben Pearson which came through the speakers on our TVs.
Some things never change
Finally, a victory at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers proved to be Alex Neil’s final derby game as manager of Preston North End Football Club.
A fantastic display that was on point tactically by the gaffer as goals from Liam Lindsay and a fine strike from Greg Cunningham saw North End claim what many North End fans might now consider to be our annual three points at Ewood Park.
The Final Chapter
This piece isn’t one to discuss Alex’s fate which has now been sealed, whether rightly or wrongly. The purpose of this is to simply remember the good times and just how good we did have it at times during Alex’s time in charge of the club.
Alex Neil defeated many teams who would have written us off; he won us our bragging rights in local derbies time and time again, and was someone who made us dream of finally playing top-flight football and lead us to our highest placed finish in the league in over a decade.
I still believe despite things not working out here, Alex Neil will go on to have a fantastic managerial career. I think he deserves it for the hard-work that he puts in day in day out.
Football moves on, and we’ll be back with a new man in charge at Deepdale, but for me at least, we can look back on Alex Neil’s time at the club with fond memories.
A man who put the club and in particular the fans ahead of himself, showed honesty and integrity during his tenure, and will always be someone I look back on and consider it being a good time to be a fan of this great football club. Thank you, Alex. All the best for the future.
Finally, if you haven’t yet listened to the latest episode of the podcast, George Hodgson from LancsLive, Jake and Oli (yes, he came back for an episode), all discuss the future for the club and where we go from here.