Sunday, 7 February 2016

Should Norwich sack Alex Neil?


I suppose I could leave it there – and this will have been the most straightforward, stress-free thing I've ever written.  But I imagine most people are expecting me to go on and explain why we should keep faith with Alex Neil, despite a recent run of poor form which has seen us sink into the bottom three of the Premier League table…

Let's start with something that should be obvious, but oddly never seems to be: sacking the manager is not a 'silver bullet' that fixes everything instantly.  Of course, I have written about this before, but that doesn't make any difference; as soon as you lose a couple of games, people start murmuring about sacking the manager, as if that always cures everything – if that were the case, clubs would have twenty different managers every season.  They don't, because that would be absurd.  Knee-jerk sackings are not the answer – and if you're the sort of person who would see their team lose and immediately reach for the P45 at the final whistle, without a moment's thought, you maybe need to reevaluate how you make decisions.

This view is a bizarre extension of the 'Something must be done!' attitude which sadly pervades many areas of life at the moment.  Anything that happens is met with a chorus of demands to ban something, remove something, change something, legislate for something…  Because something must be done!  Regardless of what that 'something' is.  It is the response of a feeble mind – and it won't help our club.

But let's move on from there.  Let's assume that we've got past reflexive demands for action-for-action's-sake, and decided that a change of manager actually might be no bad thing, on its own merits.  Before we do anything, we need to have a replacement lined up who is better.  Not 'just as good' – and certainly not worse! – but a guaranteed step up in quality from the manager we currently have.  And we need to be sure that this person is not only a better calibre of manager than the incumbent, but is available to start immediately, and would be willing to take a job at Norwich (a relegation-threatened club with, in Premier League terms, a relatively small budget).

So who is there who fits that bill?  If no names spring alacritously to mind, I'm not too surprised.  I can think of top-level managers who are out-of-work – but would they want to come to Norwich?  I can think of managers whose services we probably could secure – but would they really be better than Alex Neil?  I'm not convinced.  And unless both of those stipulations are met, we're better off doing nothing at all.

Oh, how short are the memories of some football supporters…

But what of Alex Neil himself?  Even if a good manager is available, and happy to start work tomorrow…  Does Alex really deserve the sack?!  This is a manager who came into the club midway through the season last year, when our promotion challenge looked to be fading, and turned things around.  We all remember the euphoria of our Play-Off Final day out at Wembley, don't we?  He did that.

This is the manager who got us promoted to the Premier League.  This is the manager who got a point away to Liverpool; the manager who got a point at home to top four Arsenal; the manager who beat Manchester United on their own turf.  That deserves recognition.

Yes, he has made mistakes – he is only thirty-four years old, and he is still learning his craft while having to adapt to a level higher than any previous challenge he has encountered in his fledgling managerial career – but he has potential and ambition aplenty, and has never been under any illusions about how tough a league the Premier League is.  Comments like 'out of his depth' or 'lost the plot' are harsh, to say the least.

It is unreasonable not to permit a young manager still finding his feet to make errors.  How else does one learn?  Not only is it unreasonable, though, it is stupid.  It is illogical.  Those mistakes, more often than not, stem from inexperience.  How does one gain experience?  Not by being sacked.

At this rate, the 'sacking culture' in modern football will cut off far too much promising young coaching talent at the knees.  Where will the next generation of football managers come from?

In ten years' time, people will look at the Premier League and ask: "Why are there so few talented British coaches managing at the top level?  Why is there no new blood in management in this country?"  Because they were sacked after four games in charge by ruthless CEOs acceding to the demands of unforgiving fans who cared more about exacting their pounds of flesh than looking to the future of either their own club, or the sport of football as a whole.

Alex Neil is a young manager who deserves his chance.  Norwich City need to give it to him.  And – who knows? – there is opportunity yet for that faith to be repaid.  Time has not run out; panicking now solves nothing.

Addendum (added Monday, 8th February, following various discussions on the topic):

Those who would favour Alex Neil's immediate removal have cautioned me more than once about the dangers of the club "leaving it too late" to sack him.  It is an argument – and an expression – which I abhor.  Even leaving aside the arrogance of thinking you are the person who can tell with absolute certainty when the optimum time would be for the club to act, what baffles me about this line of argument is that that it seems to skip over the question of whether or not Alex Neil should be sacked; it assumes that it is self-evident that he should be, and that the only matter left to settle is when.  It is an assumption which speaks to the central conceit of this outlook – that sacking the manager is always the answer.

The mindset seems to be that a manager's sacking is inevitable; that the only question around the issue is not "if" he should be sacked, but "when" to do it; and that sooner is always better.  This cannot be good for the club, or for the sport.  That is not a healthy attitude to have, and the worry here is that we will creep inexorably towards a farcical scenario where it is standard procedure to sack the manager after every loss, most managers last only a few weeks in a job, and the pool of managerial talent dries up completely.

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