Paddy Davitt: Will Farke heed the lessons of how things went wrong for Neil at City?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
If Daniel Farke wants to know what lies in store and the pitfalls ahead this season he could do worse than invite Alex Neil into his manager’s office on Saturday.
The past and the present at Norwich City collide at Carrow Road this weekend when Neil brings Preston to Norfolk for the Canaries’ Championship home opener.
A potential hazard was avoided at Huddersfield in a clean sheet win that will have injected some much-needed belief and drew a line under the negative slew of results that sucked the club back to the Football League.
It is one thing to say this is a new season and a new, re-modelled group of players but it is another to feel the warm afterglow of a victory and three league points.
Farke knows what it takes to win a Championship title. He achieved that feat in thrilling style and completely against the odds. But what he does not have is the knowledge of what it might take to turn a ship around after relegation from the Premier League. Or how to handle the inevitable expectation and the sense that most weeks at this level you are viewed as a prized scalp.
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Neil does. He went through it in 2016/17 but failed to last the course. By the March of that campaign he was out. Stuart Webber would arrive shortly after and in time Farke would be unveiled as the club’s first overseas appointment.
Neil has always maintained a dignified air about his treatment in these parts and how it ended for him on a personal level. Even last season, prior to the Canaries’ FA Cup third round win at Deepdale, he was again referencing the gratitude he felt towards the club’s owners for plucking him from relative obscurity north of the border at Hamilton.
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What a ride those first six months proved, culminating in an unforgettable day at Wembley when the fairytale really did come true. Immediately after that play-off triumph, once the likes of Bradley Johnson had returned him to earth after carrying him shoulder high in front of 40,000 fans, he was hailed as one of the best young managers in the game. But that did not save him or his reputation after a similarly bruising brush with the big time to Farke last season.
But one thing Neil did reflect on when he looked back at his Carrow Road tenure, which should strike a chord with Farke, is why misplaced loyalty proved his biggest regret.
The Scot opted essentially to place his trust in the vast majority of those players who had hauled Norwich out of the Championship but were unable to prevent a swift return.
Neil famously spoke candidly at his last pre-match press call about a big summer ahead and how he planned to refresh a squad which looked tired and jaded. Within hours he was gone. The rebuild was placed at Farke’s door, in tandem with Webber.
That is why it has been fascinating to observe the different approach from the duo this past, abbreviated close season. Players have been jettisoned who were part of the promotion journey in Moritz Leitner or Tom Trybull. Josip Drmic will get no second chance to make a big first impression after a forgettable tour of the top flight. While 11 new players have arrived; bringing energy and enthusiasm and no baggage from what went before.
These are early days of course. Farke himself is predicting some bumpy moments until the transfer window closes next month and minds can be fully focused on the job of winning football games. But there is no doubt that sense of renewal fostered by a hectic bout of trading has transformed the mood music around the Norwich fan base. There is optimism where there was dejection, hope rather than the crushing inevitability of the Project Restart period.
The combative Neil would love nothing better than to deliver another painful blow to his former employers, in the manner his Preston side were the only ones capable of briefly halting City’s march to the title two seasons ago.
There is a shared link and a common history between two very contrasting personalities in either dug out this weekend. But one hopes Norwich have embarked on a process moulded by Farke that will be radically different in tone and feel to Neil’s attempt at plotting an immediate return to the big league. There will certainly be no accusations of misplaced loyalty.