Hamilton boss Alex Neil set to leave for Norwich
The Accies player/manager met the players yesterday to say his goodbyes after the Scottish Premiership club agreed a compensation deal with the Carrow Road outfit and the 33-year-old now expects to formalise personal terms today.
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His assistant manager, Frankie McAvoy, was set to take training today and had the job of picking up a squad who left yesterday’s meeting with Neil in sombre mood.
“Everybody is a bit flat and a bit disappointed,” said defender Mikey Devlin. “He has been an inspirational figure for everybody at the club and everybody had a great relationship with him. Everybody loved him here. So we are disappointed, but at the same time thrilled for him because he deserves it. Everybody is delighted for him that he has got an opportunity to go and manage at a higher level. We all hope he goes on and shows how good he can be.”
Neil, who joined the club as a player in 2005, was captain when he was elevated to the managerial position in May 2013, taking over from Billy Reid. Having guided the club to promotion in his first season, outplaying Hibernian in the play-offs, he and his side enjoyed an impressive start to their Premiership campaign, and sit third in the table, four points behind league leaders Aberdeen.
They made a blistering start to the season, defying the odds by beating defending champions Celtic at Celtic Park and topping the table for a spell. That success on a limited budget has caught the eye of a Norwich, who have moved quickly to land Neil as a replacement for Neil Adams, as they attempt to secure a play-off place and a return to the English Premier League.
Yesterday, Neil was at pains to point out that nothing was a done deal, but he is confident of enhancing his reputation further if the paperwork is concluded.
“It’s never going to be easy for me to leave Hamilton if that ends up being the case,” he said. “I’ve been here for ten years. I’ve had massive links with the club for a long, long time and I’ve spent the best years of my life here, as a player, as a manager, working closely with Ronnie [MacDonald, the vice chairman] and Les [Gray, the chairman] and as captain for eight years. So it’s going to be extremely difficult if I do end up moving on.”
But, with Norwich sitting just outside the play-off places, the opportunity to steer the Championship side back to the top flight in English football is too much of a temptation for the former Barnsley player.
“When I got the job here I was only 31 and still focused on playing,” he added. “You think to yourself: ‘Am I ready to take it?’ But it’s like anything else, when something crops up that you can’t refuse…
“Ronnie offered me the job here and I couldn’t refuse it, I had to take it on, and it ended up going really well. I have learned a hell of a lot over the last two years at two different levels, which is good. I have learned about the play-offs as well.
“It’s one of those situations that I am just excited, thrilled and looking forward to a challenge, if things get sorted.
“But I have to make clear that it’s not sorted. [Friday] will really be the day I expect it to be finalised or not, and we will pretty much know where we all stand.”
MacDonald admitted the club will be sorry to lose the talented young manager, whom he has known for a decade and a half, but said that it was not their policy to stand in the way of career development, having sold on the likes of James McArthur and James McCarthy to the higher echelons of the English leagues. That was the reason the club granted Norwich permission to speak with Neil, albeit with heavy heart.
“I was disappointed but at the same time delighted that someone recognised the talent he has got,” said MacDonald. “He has an absolutely fantastic record here and I’m sure he will be a fantastic manager for Norwich.
“We want everyone to improve themselves. I say to the boys, we give you the chance and when you get to the first team it’s up to you. If you’re going to get a move to a big club, you will get that through your own efforts, but we will hopefully give you the platform.
“If we do what we do and if we finish bottom of the Third Division, that’s where we will finish. But this season under Alex has gone really well. There will be times it won’t go well, we know that, but we will give our kids the chance.”
The club now has to find a manager who can work to that remit, with current captain Martin Canning one of those in the frame. He would be a popular choice according to team-mates but first the club has to come to terms with the loss of the man who has set new standards.
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