Saturday’s game at the Hawthorns is going to be a very strange affair indeed. Since Darren Moore was sacked by the Baggies over a month ago, there have been murmurings from the Black Country that Alex Neil was being lined up to be their new Head Coach. Murmurings that have not gone away, and now look to have reached boiling point.
Rumours over the weekend began to strengthen, with someone suggesting that The Baggies were ready to approach North End for the 37-year-old in the Summer. However, it now appears that things have sped up, with a few sources suggesting that an approach could be made after Preston visit the Hawthorns on Saturday. A strange quirk in the fixture list indeed, and something that both clubs will probably find awkward.
Alex Neil has said all of the right things in regards to the speculation, but he has played his cards wisely. He hasn’t once committed his long term future to North End, and he hasn’t categorically denied anything with regards to being interested in taking the role with the Baggies.
Who can blame him, he’s done incredibly well in his short career in the Championship, and has all of the credentials to become a top coach in the future – it’s easy to forget that he’s only 37. He has shown a willingness to work with young players, develop their games and nurture their talent, whilst adopting a high energy approach, and most importantly, he is clearly an incredibly driven person with an immaculate level of detail. You just need to look at his time in Lancashire to see the players that he’s improved, Alan Browne even going on record after the Sheffield United game to say how the Scot has “transformed his game”.
A promotion with Norwich and a 7th placed finish with PNE under his belt in his two full seasons at the level, it’s no surprise that West Brom are keen to recruit him. With cost-cutting expected at The Hawthorns over the summer, Alex Neil may be seen as the ideal man to work on a slightly lower budget with an emphasis on recruiting and developing younger players, much like he has done at North End. The main difference will be that he’ll be able to cherry-pick the very best talent from the lower leagues, and WBA will probably have more scope to look for talent on the continent, something Neil did at Norwich. Much like when Simon Grayson jumped ship to join Sunderland, I can understand if Neil wants to move on to bigger things.
He’s proven himself with the club and may feel like he can’t take us any further, which is ultimately the play-offs. With Callum Robinson’s departure to the south coast all but a done deal and with the inevitable interest in other key players over the summer months, Ben Pearson, Alan Browne and possibly Ben Davies to name a few, I don’t blame Neil for thinking this was the season for us to take the leap. He may feel aggrieved for not being adequately backed in the summer, and he may be annoyed at the apathy shown by the Preston fans, who simply don’t turn up in their numbers but, that’s a debate for another day.
As for North End, at least we will have a fair amount of time to replace the Scotsman, with a few games left of the season and then the offseason. Neil himself came in at the start of pre-season in 2017, so any new manager would benefit from a bit of extra time to assess his squad and look for potential new recruits in the offseason. Regarding potential replacements, I have listed a few managers that I would consider likely to be of interest, as well as a few further left file choices.
Firstly, when Simon Grayson left in the summer of 2017, atwo-mann shortlist of Uwe Rosler and Alex Neil was compiled. The latter obviously got the job, with the fact that he had a promotion to the Premier League on his CV being one of the defining reasons but this time around, it wouldn’t be entirely a surprise if Rosler was considered again by the club. It’s hard to imagine PNE could attract someone with the same record as Alex Neil this time around when you look at the managers that are available.
One manager with a Premier League promotion on his record is Aitor Karanka, however, he has always demanded a large budget and North End probably couldn’t attract him. Other big names like Slavisa Jokanivic, Sam Allardyce, Nigel Pearson who all have similar records will be touted, but I’m not sure whether that’s the market North End will be shopping in. David Moyes is the other obvious link, with him having plenty of history at the club and desperately needing to reignite his career, but again, is that realistic? Only he will know, and he still attends most home games, but I’m not sure it’s the right fit for the club at the moment.
So, attracting another coach with a promotion from this level will be tough, but I suspect North End will still aim to go down the line of a fairly young manager. Of course, we probably won’t attract another 37-year-old, but I reckon the club will look for someone the right side of 50, as they have done with Neil, Simon Grayson, Graham Westley, Darren Ferguson and Paul Simpson in the last few years. There are plenty of good young managers in the football league, so here are a few.
The first candidate on my list is one with a big affiliation with the club, Gareth Ainsworth. Born locally, he had 3 spells at PNE and has been managing at Wycombe since 2012/3. In that time, he has a League Two promotion to his name and has worked on a shoestring budget, with an emphasis on developing young talent – much like what North End have done in recent seasons.
He looks likely to keep Wycombe in League One this season, a great achievement given their budget would be considered on the small side in League Two, and he has improved young players such as Fred Onyedinma, Scott Kashket and Dominic Gape. He has similar values to North End – honest, hard working, no frills, and has worked at a similar club, albeit at a smaller level.
His affiliation to the club could work in his favour, and he is currently being linked with QPR, another former club of his. Whether PNE would be a greater attraction, with a better, younger squad, closer to his hometown, remains to be seen.
I think the 46-year-old is a solid, if not spectacular shout.
The next to consider is Danny Cowley, a name who will be familiar to all of you by now. Starting his managerial career at non-league level with Concord Rangers, the Essex man is another one with humble beginnings. Success there, whilst working as a P.E teacher, got him the gig at National League side Braintree, who he led to the play-offs in his first season in charge, no mean feat for a club of that size in what has become a very competitive division.
That showing tempted Lincoln to take a punt on the now 40-year-old, and in his first season, he led them to the League Two title with two games to spare but grabbed national headlines for reaching the F.A cup quarter-final, beating Burnley and Brighton, before bowing out to Arsenal.
Those games on TV showed the country how tactically astute Cowley was, keeping a clean sheet at Turf Moor and showing invention from set pieces. There is a great tactical piece on YouTube which you can see below where Cowley talks in depth about how he went about that game, and it is clear he’s very talented. He looks set to take Lincoln into League One with his side sitting pretty in the automatic promotion spots in League Two.
Clearly, this guy is a serial winner, and someone will take a punt on him. He comes as a duo, with his brother Nicky acting as assistant. It remains to be seen whether Cowley would be tempted this far up North, and how well he could adapt to this level, tactically and in terms of recruiting players.
Another interesting shout though, and he certainly knows how to win.
The final young manager I have considered is Grant McCann. Currently sitting in 6th in League One with Doncaster Rovers, the 38-year-old has less pedigree than the aforementioned Ainsworth and Cowley, but he has led Donny to an impressive season playing high intensity, attractive football, and developing young players.
He started his managerial career as caretaker manager of Peterborough in 2015/16, impressing in his short spell and earning a 4-year deal to be the permanent boss. In his first full season in charge, 2016/17, he led Posh to a mediocre 11th placed finish, not the end of the world in his first season in management, and with a young squad.
He showed tactical flexibility at Posh, rotating between a 4-1-2-1-2 and a 4-3-3, and generally playing attractive football. In 2017/18, Posh started like a house on fire and were up in the play-offs around Christmas, but McCann was sacked in February after a 7 game winless run, with Posh sitting 10th in League One. Incredibly harsh, I feel, and McCann has responded well to his first sacking. He went to Donny last summer, and they currently sit 6th in League One, with a 5 point cushion to 7th placed Posh.
McCann has earned good reviews for playing high intensity, attacking football, as witnessed by the North End faithful when he brought his young Doncaster side to Deepdale in January and ran out 1-3 winners. He has done a good job of developed young players with loanees Malik Wilks and Herbie Kane flourishing, and other young players like Alfie Beestin and Ben Whitehouse improving and performing well. The high intensity football has reaped 69 goals, behind only Luton and Sunderland in the goalscoring charts.
McCann is still very young and new to management, so it remains to be seen whether he is ready for the step up, but he fits the profile very well and has done well in his League One career to date.
A less likely candidate, but still one of interest and one to watch.
Finally, here a couple of more “left-field” options if you will. I understand that these are incredibly unlikely to ever happen but they’re two I wouldn’t say no to.
We’ve recently seen the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs foray into management, as we have with Phil Neville. My first left-field pick is the England Women’s team manager, who has not been in the job too long. I admit, this is certainly a wildcard shout but it’s with reason.
Neville is another young, seemingly tactically innovative manager who has overseen some impressive performances with the Lionessess, and he has come across as a good man manager – something that was doubted of him before he entered management. He will be looking to move into the men’s game before long, and his solid start to management will have attracted the attention of a few clubs. Neville has done plenty of work at St. George’s Park and tactically, he looks adept and flexible, with the Lionesses having lined up in 3 different systems over his time in charge.
With his pedigree and the long-running links between United and PNE, he could be someone to develop young players and use his standing within the game to attract young talent and develop them, as well as bringing some excitement to Deepdale.
A fairly unlikely shout, but an interesting one.
Finally, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful have heard of him, but my second left field shout is Tim Walter.
Yep, the Holstein Kiel manager. Being a bit of a football nerd, I have watched a fair bit of Bundesliga 2 and a German exchange trip to Kiel as a 16 year introduced me to this exciting football club. Holstein play an ultra-intensive pressing system, usually a 4-2-3-1, with pace in wide areas and technicality in the middle, much like Norwich in our league.
Walter, a 43-year-old, has pedigree from his time with the Bayern Munich set up, being their second team coach before taking the reigns at Kiel, and they currently sit 5th in Bundesliga 2. Renowned in Germany for their high level of tactical innovation and their positional approach to football, Kiel have received many plaudits. They have one of the youngest squads in the league, with an average age a shade under 24.
There are a lot of parallels to North End, and it has been rumoured that Walter is interested in a move to England. If Kiel end up with promotion to the Bundesliga he won’t be going anywhere, but if not, he may well attract the attention of some bigger sides. It’s a very exciting option, but I’m not sure whether the hierarchy at PNE would ever consider it, or the fans would accept it.
For me though, it would be a hell of an appointment.
If Alex Neil does leave, who would you like to see come in and take over from the Scot? Any of the names mentioned? Someone completely different? Perhaps you have a somewhat left-field shout of your own? Let us know on twitter and also on our Facebook page.