Alex Neil: The Project Continues


The term “emotional roller coaster” is a popular one, so popular it is now almost cliché, but I can think of none more appropriate for this season at Deepdale. We are still four games from the end of the campaign but the last few days have added some twists and turns that might just have made the roller coaster of this season a little more likely to be inspected for safety concerns.

Rumblings linking Alex Neil to the vacant job at West Brom had been growing almost since the sacking of Darren Moore itself but came to a head in the latter stages of last week. It came out and started circulating among fans that Neil was to be approached by West Brom after the match on Saturday, those rumours quickly growing into murmurings of his mind being made up and the situation being more a question of “when”, and not “if”.

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Cue panic. The forums and, predictably, Twitter absolutely exploded. It being almost two years since Simon Grayson was poached from us by Sunderland, the prospect of losing a man who we can all agree we landed on our feet by hiring in Grayson’s wake, hit a little too close to home for many fans and it seemed like we might be in for another slightly tumultuous summer.

The game at the Hawthorns came and went, it went rather badly but that’s beside the point, it was almost a formality for the fans, for whom the real point of interest lay in the aftermath. Alex Neil’s press conferences were subdued. When asked about the prospect of leaving, his answers appeared dismissive at first, but scripted when examined. Scripted by whom, if at all, remained to be seen and the situation was too cryptic to tell. This only served to fuel the fires of suspense and angst among the fans.

Without having full access to the facts, it would appear as if West Brom at the very least made an informal approach for Alex Neil, perhaps even speaking to the man himself, who knows? At this point, some sort of meeting is likely to have been held between parties, Trevor Hemmings himself would probably have been involved in some capacity, whether it be via Peter Ridsdale as an emissary or in person.

Cards on the Table

To be talked down from joining a side as big and with as much quality on the books as West Brom, with a place in the play-offs all but secure, it was going to take some assurances from North End to convince Alex Neil to stay in Lancashire. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly what these promises were, it isn’t hard to imagine and perhaps to speculate what may have convinced him to stay.

Neil held all the cards going into negotiations with the club. I think any fan would admit that we need him more than he needs us at this current moment in time. We are sitting exactly mid-table in the Championship with a decent squad, but a squad that is at its strongest when involving players like Ben Pearson and Alan Browne, who are going to want to be playing at a higher level sooner rather than later and could easily be attracted to bigger clubs should an offer come in.

With this in mind, Neil could well have required the assurance that no more of his most important players were sold in this window. The potential departures of Alan Browne, Ben Pearson and Tom Barkhuizen, among others, were starting to weigh on the minds of some fans. Barkhuizen was expected by some to follow Alex Neil to West Brom if he ended up going there, something that would have subtracted immensely from our attacking force. Now that Neil’s signed on there are rumours of a new contract also on the horizon for the pacey wide man.

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Losing Ben Pearson and Alan Browne were also rumoured eventualities, with it being a very fair assumption to make that there is at least casual interest in the pair from higher levels. Losing those two would have insurmountably dented North End’s engine room and it would be understandable, maybe even expected, that Alex Neil sought assurances that them and other important core players would not be sold in the upcoming transfer window.

Lastly, and the only theory there’s actually hard evidence to support, is that Neil wanted enough faith shown in him by Hemmings and co. for them to scrap their one-year rolling contract policy enacted with managers every season since Graham Westley was hired. This policy was assumedly a failsafe, allowing for the early termination of a manager’s contract with very little cost to the club. The handing of a three year deal to Alex Neil does show a lot of faith in his work so far and his work yet to come from those in charge at Deepdale.

Peter Ridsdale in the immediate aftermath of Neil’s new contract being announced described him as “one of the best young managers in the game”, showing just how highly the Scotsman is thought of by the powers that be. Incidentally, you can read about our “project man” here, the somewhat accidental prequel to this post, for a more in-depth look at the man himself.

A Summer Warchest?

Managers are also, of course, going to be tempted by increased backing by the owners of a club. Personal backings and shows of faith such as Ridsdale’s quotes and even the lengthier contract are one thing, intent-filled financial backing in transfer windows is quite another. For a manager, financial backing is surely one of the highest compliments you can receive from your bosses, you are handed simultaneously more autonomy to make transfer decisions and a greater amount of money to enact your decisions with.

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North End aren’t the richest of clubs by any stretch of the imagination, but Neil could well have bargained for greater financial backing in the summer to help really take this club a few steps forward. The word on the street that Joe Rafferty, who has barely pulled on a PNE shirt since signing from Rochdale in January, was in fact Alex Neil’s fourth choice for a right back to cover Darnell Fisher. We’ve also heard murmurings of deals that have been rumoured to be almost done, or at least firmly in the pipeline, before the club pull out for financial reasons.

It’s exciting to think that, not only might Neil get more say in who the club brings in, but perhaps will be given the money to finalise signings that, 12 months ago, we may have walked away from.

There will, of course, be money available in the summer. With the club still owed instalments from Jordan Hugill’s move to West Ham in January 2018, plus anything else made from player sales in the summer. With this in mind, it’s going to be fascinating to see how any money is spent. And, to those that actual figures matter to; hey, this might be the window we break that old record transfer fee that brought David Healy to the club!

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As I said at the start of this piece, the season’s not over yet so it’s important to keep feet on the ground for the next four games. To try to achieve as high a league position as possible, before letting ourselves get excited for what could be a very… well… exciting transfer window!

Finally, all speculation aside, I hope you’ll all join me in thanking Alex Neil for showing faith in the club, just as they’ve shown faith in him, and for choosing to stick around despite obvious interest from a pretty big club in West Bromwich Albion. He certainly had us going there for a while! I’m looking forward to seeing what the immediate future brings.

Alex Neil deciding to commit to the club, as the club commits to him, feels like an awfully significant moment in North End’s recent history. What does the future hold exactly? No one will know for sure but one thing is for certain, it’s going to a fun ride with plenty of ups and downs along the way because, we’re all North End at the end of the day, right? Up the whites!