IN-DEPTH: Alex Neil reflects on PNE's progress ahead of the Championship run-in
If there was a word to best sum up Preston North End boss Alex Neil, '˜intense' would probably do that nicely for those who know the Scotsman or watch him from the stands at Deepdale.
The man himself says his approach to management in intense, whether that be his work on the training ground or the hours spent in front of the screen studying the strengths and weaknesses of forthcoming opposition.
So the first week of the 13-day international break provides an opportunity for the foot to come off the gas slightly, a few days to tick over rather than go full pelt.
But the competitiveness doesn’t leave Neil, even at a quiet Springfields training ground with the players long gone for the day.
During the interview in his spartan office, there is a knock at the door and in comes North End’s kitman Steve Cowell to stock up the bottles of water.
“Just leave them there Cowelly and I’ll be through in a few minutes to beat you at head tennis,” says Neil to Cowell – a lifelong Preston fan and now loyal employee.
Neil regularly takes Cowell on at head tennis in the gym and always wins.
By all accounts, he kept up that winning run after I’d left.
It is eight months since Neil was appointed North End boss, filling the vacancy created by the exit of Simon Grayson.
He has driven PNE on in that time – going into Easter they sit just two points shy of the play-offs.
Full of energy, desire and plenty of football ability, Neil’s squad are in good shape and challenging for the top six on merit.
The 36-year-old is pleased with how things have gone in general since last July’s arrival.
Every day he is working hard to see North End get better and build on what they have done to date.
“I’ve been delighted with how simple the transition has been for myself, my staff and the players,” said Neil.
“The good thing for me is that the practices I generally do, regardless of where I work, weren’t really here before I arrived.
“The way I work isn’t the way Simon worked or any of the other previous coaches have worked.
“As a player I think you need different messages, a different voice and different methods when there is a change of manager.
“You want it to be a change in a positive sense.
“If you look at how well we have played this season, the way we have performed, how young the squad is, that the new recruits are mainly young, the improvement in some of the lads who had been here for a couple of years, I think the changes have only enhanced things.
“Sometimes change when things have been steady isn’t a good thing, but in our case, the change has been positive.
“The lads are recognising that they are getting better, they’re getting more plaudits than they have ever had.
“That is due to the style of play, the manner in which we have played and some of the results we have got.
“I needed to come to my next job after Norwich and prove to people I can more than do it at this level.
“I’ve got promoted out of this division before but I think I have something to prove.”
Neil had the Norwich job for more than two years, taking them to the Premier League just five months after landing the post.
He was unable to keep them there and when the Canaries did not look like regaining their top-flight status, Neil lost his job 12 months ago.
Their loss has been PNE’s gain so far in 2017/18.
Neil said: “At Norwich it was a bit to and fro, they had been up to the top flight and come down before.
“I wanted something more stable in my next job.
“When I was at Hamilton before Norwich, that was a stable project.
“Martin Canning has continued the work which I started there, like I have continued what Simon started here at Preston.”
Neil takes the view that North End have really clicked into gear over the last few weeks, playing in the manner he wants.
So what, in his own words, is a typical Alex Neil side?
“I would say in your face, aggressive, play on the front foot, expansive when we have the ball, a real threat and danger,” said Bellshill-born Neil.
“If the other team want to overplay, we will go and pick them off.
“If the opposition wants to be more direct and make it a physical game, we are more than up for the fight.
“If you look at the games this season when we have played the better footballing sides, we have done well.
“When we have played the Cardiffs of this world who want to mix it up, we have done very well.
“To get out of the division you need a mixed bag, you can’t solely be stuck in one mode of playing.
“I have got my favoured patterns and my favoured formations and systems.
“We have played two up front in four games, we went to three at the back on one occasion, but the majority of the time most of my success has come with that fluid front three.
“They can manoeuvre into any position across the front.
“I used that at Hamilton, at Norwich and here, it has been productive.
“It takes time, you need to have the players to play that system and the lads here have adapted very well to what I have asked them to do.”