Alex Neil is the new Head Coach of Sunderland AFC. Can you tell us about what sort of manager he was for Preston North End, how did the fans rate him?
Tactically, Alex is up there with the best. It was one of the things that players would often cite in the press – the amount of work he does on preparing his players for the opposition. He’s driven, probably one of the hardest working managers in the EFL and taking North End, a club with a budget in the bottom seven in the Championship, to the top of the table for the first time in over a decade, and missing out on the play-offs in his first season by two points, is no mean feat.
What was Neil’s preferred formation(s) during his time at Deepdale?
Alex often set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 with one up top. Depending on the opposition, he did at times change it up and play with a back five with two wing-backs. However he sets Sunderland up, he won’t accept anything less than 100% from his players.
Neil parted ways with Preston via mutual consent. What caused things to end the way they did, in your opinion?
Alex’s time at North End is viewed in a mixed way by a lot of North End fans. For me, he’s one of the best managers we’ve had in my 25+ years supporting the club. He isn’t quite at the David Moyes or Billy Davies levels but he certainly brought the good times to the club, especially in his first and third season.
He developed players and because of that, played a part in making the club around £20m in player sales (Callum Robinson, Jordan Hugill, Greg Cunningham, Ben Pearson and Ben Davies). But ultimately, I think consistently having his best players taken away from him and not being able to replace them adequately meant he’d just had enough and it felt like the time for change was right when he left last March.
We have an incredibly young and inexperienced squad on Wearside. How do you think he will fare with few old pros on the pitch?
It will be interesting to see how he gets on with a younger squad. At North End we had Tom Clarke, Paul Gallagher, Greg Cunningham, Tom Barkhuizen and Darnell Fisher who, while they might not be “older pros” (Gallagher aside), were all experienced pros and had lots of experience at the level.
Did Neil have any joy bringing Academy products through into the first team?
Josh Earl and Ben Davies were two that had already come through the academy prior to Alex arriving in Preston but they both started to find a place in the side under him. Ben Davies developed into one of the best centre-backs in the Championship under Alex and he obviously left for Liverpool last January.
Bringing through players from the academy isn’t something that we saw a lot of, though. It was actually a criticism that many fans had of Alex’s time at the club but in all honesty, I’m not sure we had that many players that were capable of making the step up. It will likely be a different story at Sunderland though given you have a Category One academy at your disposal.
Neil has a reputation for being quite tactically astute. Would you agree? Are there any specific examples of where you’ve seen this really benefit Preston?
I would agree, yes. He’s one of the best in the EFL in my opinion. Local derby games: he only lost one in his four seasons at the club. Against Brentford in his final season, we were 2-0 down at half time but came back out to win 4-2. He will change things where he needs to but sets his teams up right for every game.
Can you describe Alex Neil’s best attributes as a manager/head coach?
He’ll get the lads to buy into what he wants and he’ll work his nuts off for Sunderland AFC, I have no doubt about that. But, as has already been mentioned, he’s tactically astute and incredibly hard-working.
Are there any areas of concern Sunderland supporters should be mindful of with Neil’s appointment?
He has been accused of having no plan B by some of our fans, which isn’t entirely true. There are many examples from his time at North End where we were behind, he’d change things and we’d get something from the game. He rarely sits back on a lead (like Simon Grayson would) and will look to go for the jugular.
The one thing I think could have been his Achilles heel more than anything else was that he might have been too focussed on the opposition at times, but I’d say that was more toward the end of his time at the club when he seemed fed up and like his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Would you back Alex Neil to do well at Sunderland based on your experience?
A short and sweet answer for this one: yes I would. I’ll be watching for Sunderland’s results.