When you start a job as director of coaching at a big club, your brief is clear: To raise the bar. To move the club forward from where it is when you take over.
So that meant that Phil Neale had a bit on his plate when he joined Warwickshire as director of coaching late in 1994.
The Bears had just won the treble. How do you take them forward from that?
In terms of trophy-count, it was pretty much impossible. But in many ways, Neale did take them forward. 1995 did not bring a quadruple, the only possible material step forward, but it did deliver another two trophies, adding the NatWest Bank Trophy to another County Championship title.
I have always believed that the most important factor in any team is its senior players and, while Dermot Reeve was the captain and a great leader, alongside him were senior players like Andy Moles, Gladstone Small, Tim Munton and Neil Smith who held it all together.Phil Neale
And that retention of the championship was truly memorable. Allan Donald, back as overseas player, led the bowling attack with 88 wickets at 15.48 apiece, arguably the greatest display of sustained pace and skill ever unfurled across a championship season, as Dermot Reeve’s side won 14 of 17 games – a record percentage of wins.
They also beat Northamptonshire, from whom Neale had joined the Bears, in the NatWest final to secure the one trophy that eluded them the previous year. After the brilliance of ’94, it could so easily have been a case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show.’ Another brilliant campaign (they missed out on another treble only by the narrowest margin after finishing second to Kent in the Sunday League only on run-rate) ensured the mid-90s did not go down in history as simply including a one-off year of wonders, but as a golden era.
Neale, who is currently in New Zealand in his role of operations manager for England’s men’s team, reflects on that time, typically, with modesty and gratitude.
“I was very fortunate to go into a club where the team was already very successful,” he recalls. “I could have gone in there and made changes and said ‘I want this’ and ‘I want that’ but that’s not my style – and, anyway, when a team has won the treble, why would you?
“That Warwickshire dressing-room was the best team environment I have ever experienced. I have always believed that the most important factor in any team is its senior players and, while Dermot Reeve was the captain and a great leader, alongside him were senior players like Andy Moles, Gladstone Small, Tim Munton and Neil Smith who held it all together.
“They were brilliant with the younger players. There was no ‘them and us’ – everybody respected each other’s talent and just wanted the team to succeed. There were varied individuals and personalities within that dressing-room but there was a mutual respect.
“The culture was excellent. There was no blame culture. They were positive and innovated a lot and understood that when you play like that sometimes things don’t come off. So when a player got out it wasn’t ‘crap shot’ it was ‘hard luck mate’ – the right shot that just didn’t work that time.”
Neale underplays his role, of course. In a dressing-room containing some strong and, at times, volatile characters it would have been easy to upset an ego or two which could have sent everything out of kilter. But he brought vast experience from two excellent playing careers in different sports – from 692 first-class and limited-overs games as a batsman for Worcestershire and from 369 senior appearances as a defender for Lincoln City.
He knew plenty about cricket, and was pretty good at it as shown by a first-class batting average of 36.49. But he also knew sportsmen inside out – how they tick and how to get the best out of them.
Allan was brilliant. He bowled with enormous skill and heart but was just part of a great team dynamic. Not many of that squad played international cricket. We had people like Andy Moles, who still has the best batting average of anyone who has not played for England, Dominic Ostler, Trevor Penney.Phil Neale
It helped in ’95, of course, to have A.D. back, at his peak and determined to make up for missing out on the previous season.
“Allan was brilliant,” said Neale. “He bowled with enormous skill and heart but was just part of a great team dynamic. Not many of that squad played international cricket. We had people like Andy Moles, who still has the best batting average of anyone who has not played for England, Dominic Ostler, Trevor Penney – really good players who for whatever reason never got their England chance so were always available to us.
“Then there was Dermot who brought so many ideas. I remember on one of my first days at Edgbaston I went into the indoor centre and Dermot was teaching Nick Knight, who had just signed for the club, how to play the lap shot.
“He also always backed his players. I remember us discussing team selection for one game and I suggested we play a second spinner but Dermot went for Dougie Brown, as was the captain’s prerogative. He said if the ball will turn it will reverse-swing for Dougie so he’ll pick up some wickets and also score a few runs. It was the right call.”
In 1996, the Bears stayed in the hunt for a third successive championship title until late August when a daunting list of injuries to senior players finally caught up with them. In ’97, despite captain Tim Munton heartbreakingly missing the whole campaign due to an injury sustained on the eve of the season, they lifted the Sunday League – their seventh trophy in five years – and reached the NatWest Trophy final.
Inevitably, however, the squad began to break up. Brian Lara’s return as captain in 1998, proved ill-advised and unfruitful. Neale was very much up for the challenge of building another successful squad and had no plans to leave Edgbaston, but in June 1999 the decision was taken out of his hands when Warwickshire decided that Bob Woolmer would return as director of coaching in 2000.
“I was very happy at Warwickshire,” Neale said. “I am the sort of guy who doesn’t like to move around too much as you see from my time with Worcestershire and Lincoln City and in my current job. It wasn’t my decision to leave Edgbaston but midway through 1999 they decided that they wanted Bob Woolmer to come back.
“When that news broke we were second in the championship table but then things went downhill. It was a bit awkward and very disappointing to get relegated in both competitions. We finished tenth in the championship so were condemned to play in Division Two when it came in in 2000.
“We did feel a bit hard done by to get relegated in the one-day league. The last match, against Hampshire, which we needed to win, was rain-affected and we were well on top and a just few balls away from having bowled enough overs for there to be a result from the match. We took a wicket and Shaun Udal walked out to bat – very, very slowly! The rain thickened up, off they went and that relegated us.”
So back came Bob Woolmer – but there was no doubt that Neale’s talents would be in immediate demand. He is, after all, the only man in the history of sport ever to have scored his maiden first-class century against West Indies, scored two goals in a 6-0 Football League victory over Southport (a match in which future Nottingham Forest and Arsenal legend Tony Woodcock scored on his Imps debut) and coached a team to the county championship title with a record percentage of wins.
Well aware of his personal as well as cricket-based skills, England appointed him operations director, which he has been ever since.
“I had became involved with the England set up with the Under 19s and A teams in the winters,” he said. “Then when I left Warwickshire I became operations manager and that’s the job I have been privileged to hold ever since. But I look back at my time at Edgbaston very fondly. Whenever I go back there with England I am always made very welcome. There are some fantastic people at the club, like Keith Cook who is a great friend, and I always enjoy going back.”