O’Neil worried that City’s Premier League approach is naive – and reveals that he regrets leaving
PUBLISHED: 18:22 06 November 2019 | UPDATED: 18:22 06 November 2019
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Naivety could cost Norwich City their Premier League status if Daniel Farke’s team do not learn to adjust during games, according to former Canaries midfielder Gary O’Neil.
The 36-year-old is currently without a club, having left Bolton Wanderers after their relegation to League One last season, and has been reflecting on his time with City - admitting he regrets his decision to leave for Bristol City in 2016.
O'Neil made over 200 appearances in the top flight for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, West Ham and the Canaries, so is well qualified to judge his former club's tough start to the season.
"I want to be a manager so I always think of it from a manger's point of view," he said. "You want to stick to what you believe but if you are honestly not at the same level as the majority of other teams - which on paper applies to Norwich in the Premier League - then can you be open and expansive?
"Last year Norwich could do that because they had some of the best players. It's why Manchester City can be open and expansive because they have the best players so if they're left with a one-on-one they're generally okay as their defender is quicker and stronger.
"Whereas with Norwich there comes a point where you have to think twice and accept that an opponent is better than they are and if they play open and expansive, more times than not they will come out on the worst end of it.
"Do they need to throw it all in the bin and be tight, direct and defensive? No, but it's the manager's responsibility to the club and to the fans to make sure they're competitive while still sticking to their beliefs.
"Whether that is finding some tweaks or a halfway house, or changing it in certain games but still playing as they did in the Championship when at home against the weaker teams. At the moment it looks to me like they're sticking to what they want to do rather than adjusting to the situation in front of them.
"It's somewhere between commendable and naïve and I just fear if it carries on it will get closer to naïve."
O'Neil played at Carrow Road last season, coming on in the 81st minute as City beat Bolton 3-2 thanks to an injury-time winner from Teemu Pukki. He then missed Wanderers' 4-0 home humbling later in the season - but was impressed with the attacking style of Farke's team.
"Buendia was fantastic, Teemu Pukki obviously with his goals, movement and intelligence," he said, speaking to 888sport. "I really like Aarons, the full-back. He's quick with good feet.
"The unsung hero for me is Ben Godfrey. Maybe not 'unsung' but he doesn't get the limelight of some others. I was there when he signed as a number eight, a box-to-box midfielder from York.
"He was talented but very raw: you could tell he was coming out of a lower league at the time. So to manage to polish him as they have and move his position too is a fantastic bit of management from the club.
"All credit to Daniel Farke because he's become a fantastic player."
O'Neil helped QPR earn promotion via the play-offs in 2014 and was signed on a free transfer by Neil Adams, playing a fringe role as City won the play-off final during his first season but featuring regularly during the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, which finished in relegation for Alex Neil's team.
"I remember winning at Old Trafford and playing 82 minutes of that and then drawing at home to Arsenal and Man City," he reflected. "There was a real togetherness so I look back on it fondly but I hate coming away from a club and feeling like we failed to meet our goal. We were so close.
"It started when we lost to Palace and Timm Klose got injured. We didn't really have anyone to step in and that weakened us hugely with three or four massive games left.
"We then lost (3-0) to Sunderland and couldn't recover. So that hurts but the relationship I had with the club and that season until the sour end I will always remember fondly."
After relegation O'Neil - who made 55 appearances for the Canaries - opted for the safety of a two-year contract at Bristol City, rather than the one-year deal on offer at Norwich, but after featuring regularly to start with his second season was ruined by injury.
"I spoke to Alex Neil quite a lot and we got on really well," he revealed. "I was at an age where Norwich said they were happy to keep me but only for a year and they weren't sure how involved I would be.
"They were going in a new, younger direction. I wanted to stay but then I had a phone call from Bristol City and they had a two year project and wanted me to be a big part in it. They had a young manager in Lee Johnson and it gave me a chance to see how he did it.
"Looking back on it the Bristol City time was a nightmare with an injury issue that couldn't be cleared up. So in hindsight…
"Nothing takes away the fact that I had a fantastic two years at Norwich and loved every minute of it. It's similar to Portsmouth where you get a real family feel and they have fantastic support."
O'Neil also praised his former City boss Alex Neil, who has made headlines in the past week after Championship high fliers Preston angrily rejected Stoke's interest in hiring the Scot, following a similar approach from West Brom at the end of last season.
However, he did reveal that the former Barnsley midfielder's analytical approach had left some in the Norwich dressing room frustrated at times.
"I believe Alex Neil is under-rated as a coach," he concluded. "I was at a stage when I wanted to go into management and I had done my coaching badges.
"Alex Neil arrived from Hamilton and nobody really knew who he was despite him having a fantastic spell up there. He came in and he was so diligent in his analysis and how we were going to approach this game, how they played on the Tuesday and how we were going to do it this way and why, what their strengths and weaknesses were.
"So that was a huge learning curve for me that year and-a-half I had under him at Norwich. He was impressive.
"Towards the end when things started to unravel some of the lads started to question how much info they were being given. Because you can give too much information. But I was never one of them and wanted as much info as possible, that's just who I was. I really enjoyed it and thought he was fantastic.
"I have worked with some great managers - Sam Allardyce, Harry Redknapp - but when people ask me about them Alex Neil always sticks in my mind. Because of how he was and his football intelligence. Football management has changed a lot in recent years and he is definitely a more modern type.
"I spoke to him in the summer and told him that I thought Preston would have a good year because the Championship isn't quite as strong as recent seasons and I knew Preston were as good as or better than they were last season."
- You can read more of O'Neil's interview at 888sport.com.