What Went Wrong for Alex Neil’s Preston North End?
Looked Lacklustre This Season
The football over the course of the afternoon had been rather bleak, with his side unable to get a real grasp on the game. The result was arguably the right one based on the football played. North End never really looked threatening and, when Nathan Jones’ side wrapped up the win, it seemed a fair outcome in all honesty.
It’s often been the case for the Lilywhites over the course of the season so far. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance, like the 2-1 win over rivals Blackburn Rovers or the 3-0 hammering of Huddersfield Town, but, ultimately, they’ve proven to be mere flashes in the pan for the club.
Instead, if you look at their more frequent results, Alex Neil’s Preston North End side aired more on the side of disastrous. One look at the form table tells you all you need to know. North End have just one point from their last five games and eight points out of a possible 30 in their last ten.
They also have the fourth-worst home record in the league, with only relegation-threatened Birmingham City, Rotherham United and Wycombe Wanderers doing worse on home soil.
That, too, could be a way in which to currently describe Preston North End, especially Alex Neil’s side. They have become a relegation-threatened side.
Fallen Down the Championship Table
The club are on a downward spiral after selling several key players in January and, although they recruited fairly well via the likes of in-demand Everton youngster Anthony Gordon and League One battler Ben Whiteman, it hasn’t stopped the bad string of results.
Instead, they’ve sunk like a stone thrown into the depths of the final stage of the season. From competing in the top half of the table, Preston have fallen as low as 16th and are now looking over their shoulder rather than straight ahead.
Preston have a series of tough games coming up, while Rotherham, who currently occupy the third relegation spot, have four games in hand on the Lilywhites. It all adds up to being a potentially worrying end of the season for North End.
With the Lilywhites unable to stop the rot, it’s ultimately led to the decision to part ways with manager Alex Neil. But where did it all go wrong for the former Norwich City boss?
Alex Neil’s Preston North End Had Impressive Start
Alex Neil’s tenure at Preston North End began with a bang. After two years of 11th-placed finishes under Simon Grayson, the manager decided to up and leave for Sunderland.
The hunt for a new man to take over led them to Alex Neil, whose presence had an immediate boost to everyone at the club. In fact, he led them to their highest Championship finish since 2008/09 in his first campaign by taking them to 7th.
If results went their way, they would have nabbed a play-off spot. As it happened, the club missed out but the promise of building on that fantastic first season was there and the team, manager and fans were optimistic.
A year later, they finished 14th but with players coming and going – and North End also working within a very modest budget – it could be argued that a drop was expected. A year later, he had them back battling at the right end of the league, as they finished in 9th.
This year, though, has seen them fall drastically down the table and they’ve racked up one of the biggest loss records in the league as the season has progressed.
Preston North End Lacked Spark Under Alex Neil
There’s no doubting the football had gone stale under Neil. One look at their game against Luton or their previous match against Middlesbrough in which they lost 2-0, and you can see that the side looked bereft of ideas.
But was Neil a victim of his own overachieving? Was he doomed to begin with? Is the North End job somewhat of a poisoned chalice for a manager?
The club itself is fantastically run, of that there is no doubt. The stadium and facilities are good, they’ve acquired a new training ground and owner Trevor Hemmings puts in enough money to keep the club afloat without the worry of any potential debts.
But, as far as the investment goes, that is where it ends.
While Alex Neil has been at the club, he has overseen a high turnover of players. And not just any players either – it’s often the club’s best players at that.
Lost The Spine of the Team in January
Perhaps that is truly where it has gone wrong for Neil. Maybe the January transfer window saw too much of an overhaul of players, with eight incomings and eight outgoings meaning the manager was unable to really define his best side or tactic.
During this winter transfer window, Ben Pearson, Ben Davies and Darnell Fisher were all allowed to leave. All three were in the final year of their contracts and left for next to nothing. This is despite the fact that they were arguably a part of the main spine of the team.
Pearson was a mainstay in the side- albeit when he wasn’t on the sidelines with a disciplinary ban. Davies had become arguably one of the best left-footed defenders in the league and Fisher was pivotal to the way that Neil wanted his side to play.
Letting all three leave in quick succession and not necessarily allowing efficient replacements to come in left Neil working with his hands tied behind his back for the last months of his tenure.
The manager was, therefore, unable to figure out what works for his side. Going into January, North End had won three games on the spin and were 11th in the league. Since the turn of the year, they’ve won just three games in total.
Poor Game Management
That isn’t to say that Alex Neil can get away scot-free – his game management in recent weeks has been poor in terms of substitutions and the way in which he has set his teams up, with the side looking unexciting and lacklustre in many aspects.
But to say he is the sole reason would be naive. As mentioned, he’s had to work on a modest budget, with very little money for transfers. The club still haven’t officially broken their transfer record amount which was spent on David Healy over 15 years ago.
In addition, any time one of the club’s players attracts a solid amount of interest that could command a high fee, they are often sold with very little reinvestment. For example, see the large sales of Jordan Hugill and Callum Robinson with very little put back into the side to recruit replacements.
Overachieved With the Club
When considering all of the factors, achieving a seventh and ninth-placed finish is probably good going for the manager. In that case, he definitely could be seen as a victim of his own overachievement – by creating high standards for the club and for himself, it meant that when he was unable to meet them, as he didn’t this season, he ultimately paid the price for it.
Cut back to the game against Luton. Neil looked a shadow of his former self and looked like he could perhaps benefit from some time away from the club. He put in everything he could and unfortunately for him, it hasn’t been enough to arrest an alarming slide towards the relegation places this season.
A refresh for both parties could be beneficial. Neil can recoup and go again at another club, as there is no doubt he will find one elsewhere. North End will also hope that a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh strategy can take them back to where they want to be, at the higher end of the league table.
Alex Neil can be proud of the work he has achieved at Deepdale. He didn’t quite take the side to the promised land of the Premier League but he got damn close and North End fans will be than happy with just how close he took them.
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