Features, Interview

From Old Trafford to UEA’s Sportspark

Paul Neary’s long career in professional football took him from Manchester to Japan and back again. But when he decided to start a family, he settled in Norwich as UEA’s Head of Football, bringing the knowledge he learned with Manchester United and the FA to UEA’s Sportspark.

Accompanying him to the interview is Tony Allen, a former Concrete Sports Editor, who now works with Neary doing match analysis and as an all-round stats expert. He occasionally jumps in to offer some clarification of league tables and match results.

I can only imagine that his analysis of the last few UEA matches must paint a glowing picture, with the men’s first team beating Great Yarmouth on penalties back in February, putting them through to the Norfolk Senior Cup final against Dereham Town at the end of this month.

Neary acknowledges the victory was “hard fought” against a “higher-leagued opposition.” 

“The lads stuck to a game plan and they performed a hundred per cent,” he says. “And the fitness of them came through in the end, which complemented the technical ability of each and every one of the players. They were absolutely fantastic to take a good Great Yarmouth side into extra time.

“We should have won it in extra time really, with some chances that we created. Unluckily, we hit the crossbar and whatnot. And then to win on penalties was superb.

“But, as I said at the time, we’d got some really technical players, so I was pretty confident that Tom would make a save, and our lads would hit the target and that’s exactly what happened.”

But the team didn’t have long to rest on the laurels of a successful performance. Instead, the next day they were packing their bags and climbing into the bus to head off to BUCS, hosted by Southampton.

The team had to, “flip it over and go to the BUCS quarter final in Southampton 15 hours later, away to Southampton,” Neary tells me. He says it was, “a massive ask, because we didn’t finish the game until half ten the night before. We were setting off at eight in the morning … unfortunately we weren’t successful … but I think asking some of the lads who played 120 minutes the night before, I mean on such a high, to then go on to actually perform again less than 15 hours later, was a big ask.

“We were actually the better side over the 90 minutes to be fair. From that, then we went back into our league on the Saturday.

“Performances are good. We’ve had one defeat … this calendar year, which happened on Saturday, to the top of the league. And again, we were the better side. I think what came of that was playing seven games in two weeks… while the lads are very fit, and James Warren does a remarkable job to get them to that level of fitness… it’s been a hectic fortnight or so.”

In spite of such a relentless programme of matches, the team has been managing to garner impressive performances, being the first side in the Anglian Combination in more than ten years to make the final of the Norfolk Senior Cup, when they will once again face a side used to playing in higher leagues, Dereham Town.

Neary breaks down the opposition side for me: “We’ll have to watch out for Hipperson on the left, Logan on the right, Toby and Crisp up front, Matt Castellan at the back.

“They’re four leagues above us. They’re a very, very good side. They play, obviously, to that standard week in and week out, so they’ll be used to the intensity of a greater technical ability than what we are at our league.

“But it’s a one-off game, 90 minutes. It truly is a cup final for us isn’t it? So, we’ve got nothing to fear, nothing to worry about. No one expects us to win. No one expects us to even score. So, play with no fear.”

Even so, playing against sides from higher leagues is increasingly becoming commonplace for the UEA team, and Neary points to their game with Norwich United last month as being the team’s best performance in the last 18 months.

Neary explains the team was, “two leagues above us and are second in their league. Top scorers in their league. Came to play us here and, again, it was nil-nil, so to keep them quiet for so long was great.

“Extra time, nil-nil, and again going through on penalties was fantastic. A game which perhaps again we had chances to win within that 90 minutes really, so whilst people look at it and say ‘yeah you won on penalties twice. It’s a lottery,’ actually we were the better team, considering that we only get paid around four, five hundred pounds a week.

“That’s the gulf that we’re competing against and we’ve got very, very, very good players who should be playing at that level anyway. So, we’re in a good position.”

In the event that the team wins their final, Neary naturally hopes they will be able to progress to compete in higher leagues, but he also acknowledges that the club might not be ready to make the change yet.

“I think each year you reflect on your performances. We are perhaps, as a club, so not necessarily as a team, as a club, we’re not ready for promotion yet.

“The infrastructure’s not quite ready for it, if I’m honest. It might be a year too soon. But that’s for the people at the university to sort that out. And for this team to progress they need to.”

But, considering the team’s frequent underdog status, Neary also takes pride in just how far they have come.

“Just by getting to the cup final is an unbelievable, amazing achievement, which I don’t think people realise just how big it is in Norfolk,” he says.

He also hopes that the performances of not just the main team, but of all the teams that fall under the umbrella of UEA Football, will be able to coax a little more attention and funding from the university to facilitate their ascension into higher leagues.

“We were tremendously successful last season. We won everything last year. Promoted in both leagues, won all the cups, not just our first team but through the club, the women’s team as well.

“If the women win today, they’re promoted. So, it’s not just the first team, it’s the whole club.”

The result of the women’s match was a 4-0 win to UEA, seeing the U’s safely through to promotion.

Neary adds, “We now have an under 12s team. We’ve got a UEA FC Under 12s and next year we’ll have an Under 11s under 12s. We’re the first university in England to have a youth pathway, which is fantastic isn’t it? So, I think we are growing, we’re growing fast. Obviously, success on the pitch reflects success off it, doesn’t it? It’s a vicious circle isn’t it? One compliments the other.”

As one of the most universally popular sports, football sees some of the largest intakes of freshers every year.

“Yeah, it’s huge,” Neary says. “I think we had the biggest ever trials this year. I think there was 200-odd people come down, like cavalry coming over the hill. It was crazy!”

But it begs the question whether the club will simply continue to expand, and stretch its resources across a larger number of teams, or if trials will have to become more competitive in order to siphon off the talent from an ever-growing pool of fresh players. The answer appears to be a mixture of both:

“We’ve put another team in now,” Neary explains to me. “We’ve got four teams competing, which is great. I think the better calibre of first of all person that you have in and around, the better it is for your environment, and obviously the better the player you are the more competition you’ve got for places.

“And we’ve got it now where if you’ve got your shirt, you need to work hard to keep hold of it. That’s the way it is…

“I think we’ve got to get an opportunity for everyone to play football, everyone to kick a ball around.

“Ultimately, if you’re going to come and play for the first team, say, if you’re good enough, you’re good enough, aren’t you? It’s as simple as that.

“And for the players that have now got the shirts, you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing the right things. You’ve got to make sure that you recover well, that you don’t go out on a Tuesday or a Friday night. You’ve got to be as professional as you can, whilst still living your life doing a degree. Because, obviously, that’s what they’re here for, isn’t it?”

While some of the players at UEA Football may sign up to have a casual kick-around, there undeniably are some that take Neary’s philosophy of ‘doing the right things’ to compete to heart. This time last year, UEA player Ben George was selected to go up for the England Universities Team, and this year his path has been followed by another handful of U’s players.

“We had five trial this weekend from our team, five successfully into trials. By all accounts they did very well, so we find out not next week, the week after, so you’d like to think out of the five two would get through. You’d like to think.

“One of those persons… [is a] guy called Henry Clark. If you want me to sing about a player I’ll sing about him. My captain this year. Top lad, first and foremost.

“The potential of him playing football is massive and we had a good chat about it at the start of this year, and our agreement was if you do the things we talked about before: if you commit to going to the gym, if you eat right and you drink proper and you sleep proper, at the end of it we’ll offer you a trial out in Japan.

“He was subsequently offered a trial in the J1 League as a professional contract going out there this year. Unfortunately for him, the coronavirus just started, hasn’t it, and no one can get there! But he’ll come, it’ll just be delayed for, well however long, six months or however long the thing’s on for. He’s got a really, really good opportunity of being offered a contract out there. I’ve been lucky enough to work in Japan, and I would say that Henry fits the bill really well.”

Neary spent several years travelling around the world while working for the FA, before joining UEA. But he still maintains relationships with his past employers, including at Manchester United.

“I still go off to United and do bits and pieces up there, which is fantastic because I’ve been there a long time and it’s hard to break your roots. I’m very loyal. I’m pushing 20 years at United, so I’m not a United fan, but it’s hard to leave it. But what I would say is all the stuff you learn up in Manchester, we implement here. So that’s the trade off, I suppose.”

Whether a United fan or not, he’s not a fan of the Canaries it’s safe to say.

With the kick off of the Norfolk finals set to take place at Carrow Road on 23 March, Neary looks at his time with UEA as a period of steadily improving performances. However, it may all come to a close when Neary’s contract ends in six months’ time.

I ask him if he’s looking to stay on at UEA. 

“Well, that’s not for me to decide, is it? It’s for other people to decide that,” he tells me. “But they’re running out of time!”

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Jamie Hose

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May 2022
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