LONDON, May 26- Norwich manager Alex Neil is relishing the prospect of pitting his wits against the best of the Premier League after his remarkable rise reached a new high with promotion at Wembley.
Just nine months ago, Neil was a virtual unknown outside the close-knit Scottish community of south Lanarkshire where he was starting his second full season in charge of minnows Hamilton.
The first match of Neil’s 2014-15 campaign, a Scottish League Cup victory for Hamilton against Arbroath in August, was watched by just 730 people.
But fast forward to May and Neil suddenly found himself the toast of an 85,000 capacity crowd at Wembley as jubilant Norwich fans hailed the 33-year-old Scot, who had just underlined his growing reputation as one of the brightest young managers in Britain by masterminding his club’s 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough in the Championship play-off final.
After leading Hamilton’s promotion to the Scottish Premiership via the play-offs last season, Norwich persuaded Neil to come south of the border to England’s second tier following the sacking of Neil Adams in January.
At that point Norwich were languishing outside the top six in the aftermath of last season’s relegation, but Neil, whose unremarkable playing career including stops at Airdrie, Barnsley, Mansfield and Hamilton, presided over an incredible run of 17 victories from 25 games which culminated in promotion thanks to first half goals from Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond at Wembley.
Neil’s progress from the backwaters of Scottish football to the bright lights of the Premier League, combined with a fiery temper and determination to win at all costs, has already drawn comparisons with legendary former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
And, with a single-minded focus that Ferguson would surely approve of, Neil made it clear he wouldn’t feel inferior when he locks horns with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal next season.
“People have made a lot of the last year, telling me I was at Arbroath in front of 700 fans at the start of the season, but it is not a huge concern to me,” Neil said.
“I set goals and am really determined to achieve them, whether it is Hamilton or Norwich. I don’t get overawed by anyone or any place.
“I am not silly, I know how big the task is. But we have our goals once we get there about what to do.”
– Driven personality –
Neil’s success has prompted Norwich fans to nickname him ‘Sir Alex’ in reference to Ferguson, while the club’s majority shareholder, the television chef Delia Smith, jokes he should be knighted.
But Neil is adamant the the plaudits won’t soften the fiercely competitive personality that has driven him to such great heights.
“The thing that drives me is letting people down. The fact that Norwich showed faith in me giving me the job, being so young, a lot was made of that,” he said.
“So I am pleased I have made everybody happy, that means more than anything else and we have sent those fans home happy.
“You see (majority-shareholder) Delia (Smith) on the pitch at the end and it’s special. It was about making sure my family is there enjoying the day because the last thing I would want to do is lose and go home with my kids crying.”
For Middlesbrough’s Spanish manager Aitor Karanka there was frustration at missing out on promotion but also pride that his team had enjoyed a strong season.
“I want to congratulate Norwich for getting promotion, but I am so proud of my players,” he said.
“When I arrived 18 months ago the team was two points above relegation.
“When you make mistakes it is difficult to win games, but I prefer not to speak about the mistakes because we achieved a lot to play here at Wembley.
“We win as a team and we lose as a team.”