Alex Neil ticks important Knighthead box - Stoke City expert on Birmingham City contender

Alex Neil is a firm believer that possession-based, attacking football is the route to promotion. The Scot is seemingly aligned with Birmingham City’s owners Knighthead, who are searching for the fourth manager of their tenure following the departure of Tony Mowbray.

Former Norwich City, Preston, Sunderland and Stoke City manager Neil has emerged as one of the contenders to take over at Blues. Still only 42, Neil has managed more than 450 games since beginning his coaching career at Hamilton in 2013.

Neil has three promotions on his CV, including one from League One with Sunderland in 2022, but he does come with the caveat of a difficult 16 months in charge of Stoke. Neil lost 31 of his 66 matches in the Potteries and was sacked in December with Stoke 20th in the Championship.

Explaining how Neil’s tenure unravelled, Stoke reporter Pete Smith said: “I think his biggest problem with supporters was that the first season ended so sluggishly, there hadn’t been enough promise to buy him the time he needed for everything to come together. There were a couple of times when it seemed like everything had clicked. There was a week in October where Stoke beat Sunderland, Leeds and Middlesbrough, and I remember talking to him at the end of that week and he said, ‘We’ve got to make sure this is no flash in the pan’. Then they didn’t win a game after that.

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“He was convinced that he would win promotion to the Premier League. It was a case of when, rather than if. I think they ended up losing three or four in a row. They lost a tight game at QPR with a dodgy sending off, then there was a game at Plymouth where Stoke took the lead and ended up losing 2-1 in the 97th minute. If Stoke had ended up getting the winner it would have been a raucous away end. Neil had to walk past the away end at Plymouth and it was furious. They were getting a lot of stick and he said he didn’t know what to do. He thought if he applauded the away fans who had made the long trip it would look patronising so he kept his head down and tried to walk past everybody.

“In the days following that, you could just tell that he had realised that his days were numbered. As it turned out, they lost at home the following week against Sheffield Wednesday and in the press conference after that he apologised to the fans and the chairman for not being able to come up with the answers.”

While Neil wasn’t the answer for Stoke, there is evidence to suggest he is a credible candidate for Blues. He guided Norwich to the Premier League in his first season in English football and almost led Preston into the play-offs in his maiden campaign at Deepdale. Neil guided Preston to seventh, 14th, ninth and 13th placed finishes respectively.

His teams have always tried to dominate the ball and play on the front foot. Even Stoke, for all their misgivings in 2022/23 during Neil’s first season, averaged 52.8 percent possession per game and 12.7 shots – statistics which should have seen them finish higher than 16th.

Smith added: “He always said that he would love to watch a game between teams wearing neutral colours and know exactly which was his team, playing really aggressive, fast, direct football. Having possession, he thought, was the best way to get out the Championship, keeping the ball and making the most of it. He never had a striker who could consistently score goals at Stoke, which was a big problem. It’s not only been a problem for him, but a problem for the club.

“He was convinced at Stoke that he had to play with more of a flourish than he could have got away with at Preston. He was convinced at Preston they would celebrate a dogged 1-0 win more than he would get away with at Stoke – I don’t think that was true. Stoke fans are not used to winning football matches full stop. If he had been able to win games any which way, he would probably still be there.

“He was very focussed on tactics. One of the criticisms he had at Stoke was that he was so obsessed with tactics that he would make changes to his team depending on the opposition rather than relying on his own team to put their stamp on the game. To that, he would probably say he didn’t have the players at Stoke, particularly in his first season, that he could trust to play exactly the way he wanted to. And in the second season he wasn’t able to gel them enough.

“When we had a couple of good months it was football to really get behind. Counter-attacking at pace and winning the ball back and knowing what to do with it. I’m sure that will be the way that he wants to play at his next club too.”

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