What’s so good about Hamilton? Reply

HamiltonWhisper it quietly, but is there a little bit of optimism creeping into Scottish football? The national team is keeping its hopes alive in the European Championship qualifiers and there is a realistic chance that they could make France 2016. In the domestic game, the continued absence of Rangers seems to have had a demotivating affect on Celtic, although by the end of the campaign, they will surely regain their logical place at the head of the Scottish game. Celtic and Rangers need each other, although very few fans on either side will probably admit that.

No, the positive vibes are not coming from Ibrox or Celtic Park, but from little Hamilton Academical, some 12 miles from central Glasgow. This is not a club that is used to success, indeed they have won nothing significant throughout their long history. But in 2013-14, the Accies won back the Premier Division place they lost in 2011.

They’ve slipped down to fourth in the Scottish Premier table after setting the early season pace, but Hamilton have surprised everyone with their youthful vigour and surprising results. Admittedly, there may have been an element of “new boys’ enthusiasm” after their promotion last season, but people are looking at Hamilton and wondering if their model can act as a blueprint for the future of Scottish football.

Take their 1-0 win at Celtic in September as a case in point. It was their first win at Celtic in 76 years and sent them clear at the top of the table. Hamilton’s team that pulled off this famous victory was very young with eight of their players coming through the academy system.

Hamilton’s player-manager, Alex Neil, was not surprised by this result. He should know a thing or two about his squad – he coached some of them from under-17 through to the first team. Developing home grown talent is obviously the way ahead for nations like Scotland. They’ve had their share of imports over the years and people are now starting to realize that such a policy eventually impacts the national team in a negative way. England are only just waking up to this.

Hamilton’s Chief Executive, Colin McGowan, told the media that “something special is going to happen here” as he showed reporters round the New Douglas Park stadium. It doesn’t sound as though it will be an accident, either. When McGowan and his pals – a group of 10 – bought the club for the princely sum of £1, they pledged to build a team based on youth. The club is now reaping the rewards of that policy and also benefitting from those that move on to higher things – such as the hefty sell-on fee received from the sale of James McArthur by Wigan to Crystal Palace. Other players, such as midfielder Ali Crawford, could go the same way as McArthur.

McGowan, a reformed alcoholic and drug-user, also set-up a recovery unit for the addicted at the club. The club gives away hundreds of tickets to the families of those affected by drugs and alcohol and also free meals. To quote McGowan, “I’m putting a wee bit back in.”

The accent on youth and social responsibility work has increased the club’s popularity, but they still struggle to get support at the gate. Their average gate this season is 2,122 – the lowest in the top flight, but 700 up on 2013-14.

Those people that have turned up have seen some highly encouraging performances from Neil’s side. They lost their opening game of the season, but then went on an impressive run that included victory against Scottish Cup holders St. Johnstone, Celtic and Aberdeen. Since mid-October, their form has been patchy, with one win in five. That win was on November 22 against St.Mirren (3-0). Neil refuses to accommodate talk of bubbles bursting and just highlights the league table and 27 points from 14 games. Nobody truly expected Hamilton’s late summer flourish to be maintained for an entire campaign.

But with the Scottish Cup approaching and a possible place in Europe up for grabs, Hamilton can be optimistic about their prospects for the rest of 2014-15. Hamilton’s only stab at real glory came in the Scottish Cup in 1911 and 1935. It’s about time those red and white hoops had something to show for their efforts – and it’s worth bearing in mind that next season, Rangers may be back in the top division and the dynamics will change once more…

John Neal’s reign underlined the value of patience 1

john-neal-aston-villa-1960John Neal came across as a decent man. Honest, earnest and an old-fashioned, no-nonsense football person. But in the modern era, Neal would never have got the chance to change Chelsea’s fortunes. Two lack lustre campaigns and he would have been out of the Stamford Bridge revolving door. But in his third season in charge at Chelsea, he created a team that ended a dismal period for the club playing an exciting brand of football that revived an ailing giant.

Neal, cigarette perpetually screwed into his craggy features, led Chelsea to promotion from the old second division and back into the top six of the first. After a period of steep decline, which threatened the very existence of the club, Neal gave Chelsea fans something to cheer about once more. The Chelsea of Dixon-Speedie-Nevin evoked memories of the Blues side of Osgood-Hutchinson-Hudson-Cooke.

Ken Bates will brush away a tear as he remembers Neal. It was Bates who demonstrated great faith in the former Wrexham and Middlesbrough manager after a string of managers had failed to rescusitate Chelsea . Bates didn’t appoint Neal, he inherited him when he bought the club for a quid in 1982. The straight-talking and equally no-nonsense Bates gave Neal a chance to prove himself. The 1981-82 season, Neal’s first, was an up and down affair, but the FA Cup run that included victory against eventual champions and European Cup holders Liverpool, suggested that Neal may have something in his kitbag that could change Chelsea’s fortunes. But the following campaign was near-catastrophic, with relegation to the third tier only just avoided.

Neal could well have been sent on his way, but Bates wanted to give him the resources to build a new Chelsea. It was clear that the club’s too-comfortable young players were never going to amount to much, so Bates and Neal went shopping in football’s bargain basement. Bates gave him the money – significant in the club’s austerity years, but still modest – to sign some promising and untapped talent. Players like Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Nigel Spackman and Joe McLaughlin arrived to build a new-look Chelsea side. It was a masterstroke and Chelsea, playing some of the most progressive football seen since the glory days of 1970, won the second division in dramatic fashion.

But while the celebrations at Grimsby, the 1-0 win that clinched the title, were in full flow, Neal was suffering with his heart. He was forced to take a back seat over the next two seasons, the second of which saw John Hollins take over as manager. Hollins, a popular player and all-round “nice guy” was not a good manager, though, and the team Neal had crafted, along with his assistant Ian McNeill, crumbled in disarray and relegation. Chelsea quickly bounced back, although they were never able to recapture the verve of the 1983-1986 period, until a decade later when Chelsea effectively “went continental”.

Neal’s earlier career deserves mention, however. Born in 1932 in Seaham, County Durham, he was a jobbing footballer with Hull City, Kings Lynn and Swindon Town before joining Aston Villa in 1959. He won the inaugural Football League Cup with Villa in 1961 but ended his playing career with Southend United in 1965. As a manager, he spent nine years with Wrexham and took the Welsh club to the last eight of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976. He joined Middlesbrough in 1977 and four years on, was hired by Chelsea.

John Neal’s style and mannerisms belong to a different age. He couldn’t be more removed from the black-suited “mafia-managers” of the current globalised game. Not for him the “mind games” of the current profile or the petulance of the dugout. A man of integrity and endeavour. The team he built at Chelsea ended a dark, depressing decade for the club and that is how he will be remembered in South West London this week.

John Neal , 1932-2014.