When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not - Dave Seddon looks back at the Preston reign of former manager Alex Neil in his PNE pressview

Football’s wheels can turn quickly, just ask Alex Neil whose 44 month tenure as Preston North End manager ended last weekend.

By Dave Seddon
Friday, 26th March 2021, 4:45 pm

Twice in the last two years PNE had to fight off attempts to lure him away from Deepdale but on Sunday they were showing him the door.

Neil led the Lilywhites to their highest league position since 2009, oversaw the development and improvement of some talented players.

In the end though, he ran out of ideas and perhaps energy, it not coming as a surprise when it was announced manager and club had parted company.

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Alex Neil

I enjoyed the Neil years, the Scot being the sixth full-time manager I had dealt with as the PNE writer for the Lancashire Post.

In all my time watching the club, 21 managers have come and gone, together with a few caretakers.

From a reporter’s point of view, Neil was good to deal with.

Press conferences were not dull, rarely the bog- standard ‘the boys did well’ type of delivery.

Neil was entertaining, he was sometimes spiky, the latter usually during transfer windows which he was no great fan of.

It might be a minor thing but Neil would always address you by name when answering a question. That is a common courtesy not every manager shows.

He did every pre-match press conference in his time at North End, only three times can I remember Frankie McAvoy standing in for him post-match.

During the first lockdown when football was paused for three months, Neil regularly held Zoom press conferences to keep in touch.

He didn’t always give the answers people wanted to hear, Neil not wanting to sugarcoat things.

That is how I found him from a journalistic point of view which some of you reading this might shrug your shoulders at, but I think it is worth putting on record.

Ultimately it is matters on the pitch where a manager is judged and Neil was to fall short these last few months.

For getting on for three years of his reign, I would wager that he did well – very well in parts.

However, after the restart last June, Neil started to hit some bumps in the road.

His first season will be regarded as the best, North End finishing seventh and just two points outside the play-offs.

Yes, there were wobbles in that campaign but overall it was very entertaining.

A 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in Neil’s first competitive game in charge set the tone.

High tempo, high pressing football, with Ben Davies, Ben Pearson, Jordan Hugill and eventually Callum Robinson shining.

There were memorable away days – at Birmingham where PNE stormed back from a goal down to win 3-1, Hull on a Tuesday night with Robinson heading an 88th minute header.

Daryl Horgan sweeping in a fine finish at Burton, the 3-0 win at Nottingham Forest, Gentry Day at Bolton when Sean Maguire came off the bench to score twice.

There was the battle through the ‘Beast from the East’ to get to Sunderland and win 2-0 at the Stadium of Light.

Three defeats on the spin over Easter dented the hopes of the top six but four wins and a draw in the last five took things down to the wire.

The 2018/19 campaign started as if North End had a hangover from the 100mph first season.

But two very decent runs, the first kicked-off by that dramatic 3-3 draw at Aston Villa, the second inspired by a January reboot in the transfer market, saw PNE climb to seventh place and be outside the play-offs only on goal difference by the March international break.

Then came that slump in the last eight matches, the hope of the top six turning into a 14th place finish.

Last season North End started impressively, only three defeats before the middle of November.

To the top of the table went Neil’s men on November 3, 2019 after a 1-0 win at Charlton.

The night before, Neil and Peter Ridsdale had been locked in talks after Stoke’s approach for him.

After beating Charlton, they won 3-1 against Huddersfield but then lost four on the bounce.

Fans saw that as the start of Neil’s decline, although in January and February last year, they lost only one game in eight, away wins coming at Barnsley, Wigan and Stoke.

It was leading up to lockkdown that things started to go wrong and have never been put right.

A source of frustration for Neil throughout his tenure was buying and selling, more so the selling.

He lost Hugill six months in, Greg Cunningham at the end of the first season, Robinson when 2018/19 finished, then Pearson, Davies and Darnell Fisher in the window just gone.

Those first three went for very decent money, Hugill especially at £9.5m.

But to lose Pearson, Davies and Fisher in the space of four days, played a significant part in Neil’s downfall.

Straight away at his first press conference after the January window closed, he voiced his opinion that the squad was in his eyes not as strong as it had been – how could it be with Pearson and Davies gone?

The proof has been there in the results. In the 11 games since the window shut, PNE have lost seven times.

Neil felt he could no longer get them playing from the back, the tactic instead being turning the ball long to lone striker Ched Evans.

When admitting after the Luton game that he didn’t have a ‘Scooby-Doo’ what his best team was, it was akin to writing out his own P45.

Neil will be back in the game after a rest and I’ve no doubt he will do well.

Now we place out trust in McAvoy to steer North End through the last eight games and pick-up the required points to stay at this level.

A different voice and a different approach can hopefully bring about the ‘bounce’ and reverse the slide in form.

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