ALEX Neil believes Hamilton’s success in prevailing over Celtic marks this season out as a “turning point” for his club. And it says everything about the ethos of the Lanarkshire side that he offers up this assessment not in relation to last Sunday’s historic win in the east end of Glasgow which moved his newly promoted club to the top of the Premiership pile.
The Accies player/manager said: “We have a young kid in the system that Celtic came in for but we managed to convince him and his parents that this was the best place for him.
“We have never been in a position where we have been able to keep players because it has been so ingrained in their belief that if Celtic, or Rangers, come in for them, that is where they should go. They take so many of them off us, then they just disappear. We get them back at 21, 22 and they have lost four years of development because they could be playing for our first team at 18. At that age, they are lucky if they play for those clubs’ under-18s”.
Neil cuts an impressive, and impressively driven, figure. He is determined to carve out his own niche in a coaching domain that former Hamilton manager Billy Reid encouraged him to enter during a lengthy injury lay-off in his mid-20s.
“If you ask anybody here, I do things my way, the way I want it done and everybody else does it the way I want it done as well,” added Neil. “I have my own ideas and I think that’s important. When you try to copy somebody else you are not being true to yourself.”
At 33, Neil is the second youngest manager in the Scottish senior set-up after Stirling Albion’s Greg McDonald.
That fact shows that Hamilton’s willingness to be true to their development philosophy extends beyond their playing squad. As a vocal, demanding Accies captain, then under-17s and under-20s coach, as well as the longest-serving employee at a club he joined in 2005, Neil’s progression might seem natural. Certainly, he appears a natural in a role he inherited from Reid 17 months ago. Yet he feels his elevation has exacted a high price.
“It was too early for me, I still wanted to play. I am still of that mind, I [keep thinking I] want to see the last year of my career and maybe get a game somewhere. But, in the end, I have got a job to do here. That is me probably being selfish and thinking of myself, while I have got to think about our young squad now. My focus [has to be] on trying to make them better.”
Neil admits he is ambitious in all aspect of his life to go as far as he can.
His bonds to Hamilton are therefore not unbreakable but his belief is that the club’s current crop of emerging youngsters are better than the batch which produced £21 million-worth of talent in the two Jameses – McCarthy and McArthur – and Brian Easton. These are the “role models”, showing “the pinnacle of what can be achieved” by all who follow them, according to Neil.
“If you look at that group, there were probably three outstanding individuals, another few dotted about, maybe about six who could have gone on,” said Neil. “This group as a whole is probably stronger, and I think there are more of them as well. And the group below that, the likes of Darren Lyon, Eamonn Brophy, Greg Docherty, Scott McMahon, Jason McGrath, guys you have probably never heard of, they are a real good group as well.
“I want to take this team as far as I possibly can, and I still think there is a lot more scope for us. We have started the season well but it is still early days – you only look back and see how well we have done when the season is finished. We can’t do it after nine games. We are on a ten-game unbeaten run, but if we then get beaten for ten games it doesn’t look so good then.
“We have still a lot of work to do. Guys like Docherty and Brophy, who were in my team at 17, I would love to see them become first-team regulars then that is me sort of completed the cycle if you like by taking them from 17s, to 20s, to first team. Certainly with that group there are capabilities of that happening.”