Big Interview: North End boss Alex Neil on his debut season at Deepdale
It does not take Alex Neil more than a couple of moments in which to pinpoint the moment when he knew that taking the Preston North End job had been the right decision.
We are sat in the offices at Deepdale, Neil reflecting on his first season in charge of the Lilywhites, one in which he guided them to a very creditable seventh place.
Ahead of him is a bit of time away with his family before the preparation for the 2018/19 campaign starts to get serious.
To say he enjoyed the first season with North End is an understatement.
Many times over the months, Neil spoke of how he liked being out on the training pitch with the squad, moulding them into a group who would get to within two points of the play-offs.
And it was those players who struck an early cord with him last July.
Looking back to getting the job and his introduction to PNE, Neil said: “I hadn’t actually been out of work for too long, I had left Norwich in the March which meant only four or five weeks of the season remained. I’d had a couple of bits and pieces put to me but nothing which excited me in any shape or form.
“To be honest, I politely rejected those within a couple of minutes of the conversation.
“But the Preston one intrigued me when I got the phone call.
“It wasn’t one where I was thinking I should be running up here to take the job but there was just something about it which interested me. I was thinking along the lines of how much scope would I have, how far could I move the club?
“I wanted my next job to be one where I could take a team into the Premier League.
“I had done that with Norwich down here and with Hamilton in Scotland.
“That is the type of coach I saw myself as, one who could take a good team up.
“I came up here and spoke with Peter Ridsdale and the owner – it was a chat about football in general.
“I liked that, liked what was said and I accepted the job here.
“The biggest thing which convinced me I had made the right choice was when I saw my squad for the first time in training.
“Straight away I thought to myself, ‘I have better players than I had imagined’.
“The players continued to impress me in training and the games throughout the season, everything I asked of them they tried their best to do.”
Politics can be woven into the fabric of a football club, which doesn’t exactly make life easy for managers.
What Neil has found to be refreshing at North End is the lack of politics, the lines of communication straightforward.
“The simplicity of the job with me reporting straight to Peter is good,” said Neil, who turns 37 next month.
“I knew Peter briefly from my time as a player at Barnsley and I got on really well with him right from the off.
“This season I have felt totally at ease here, there is a real simplicity in the way we work.
“Everything we do is a team effort and very much a joint decision.
“If I said I didn’t want to sign a particular player, we wouldn’t sign him.”
Neil took the job a week into the pre-season.
The more-than-solid start to the campaign pointed to the fact he made up for that lost time.
Pre-season was a twofold challenge for Neil, in that he was getting the players ready for action at the same time as having to get to know them – learning on the job as they say.
Said Neil: “When you take a job there is no guarantee how it is going to work out.
“We all have our hopes and aspirations.
“There were people who had actually tipped us for relegation so automatically I had something to prove.
“And having left Norwich, I think I had enough to prove anyway.
“Coming in I was aware that we had a lot of young players. What I was conscious about as well was that a lot of experience had left.
“Alex Baptiste had gone, so had Tyias Browning – I know he’s young but he had played for Everton at a higher level. Aiden McGeady had been a big factor in how well the team had done – he was away too.
“We knew we had our work cut out but Peter had made some signings before I arrived – Sean Maguire and Josh Harrop, for example.
“From that point it was a case of trying to add a couple more to the squad here and there.
“I really enjoy doing my job here and what makes it is the people.
“You can go anywhere you want and it might be a lovely place, but people make it what it is.
“How much I enjoy my job is dictated by who I work with, how hard we work together and whether we get a result on a Saturday afternoon and on a Tuesday night.
“While I’ve never got too high after a win, I’ve learned not to get as low as I used to do in the past.
“If you lose a game, you dust yourself down, learn from it and go again.
“You never stop learning in football.”