Almost 12 months ago to the day, it was Neil who masterminded Hamilton’s promotion to the Scottish Premiership, and following his appointment in January the unheralded Scotsman has presided over a remarkable run which took the Norfolk club back into the top six and culminated in what was a comfortable victory over Boro in the Sky Bet Championship play-off final, with first-half goals from Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond.
Despite the magnitude of the achievement in such a short space of time, with 17 victories from 25 games, the 33-year-old intends to stay grounded.
“The goal was to gain promotion. We aimed for automatic, it was difficult but we got close, so then it was important that we remained focused,” said Neil.
“The thing that drives me is letting people down. The fact that Norwich showed faith in me giving me the job, being so young, a lot was made of that, they showed plenty of courage.
“So I am pleased I have made everybody happy, that means more than anything else and we have sent those fans home happy.”
The game had started at break-neck speed with both Norwich and Boro smashing the bar inside a minute of each other.
First Bradley Johnson struck the woodwork with a half-volley from the edge of the box before Boro broke and Vossen’s rasping effort clattered John Ruddy’s bar. But Jerome broke the deadlock when he cashed in on Ayala’s mistake in the 12th minute.
The striker robbed the former Norwich defender on the left-hand side of the box and raced towards Dimi Konstantopoulos.
With no Boro challenge coming the forward then had the simplest of chances to roll the ball between the goalkeeper and the near post from five yards. And three minutes later the Canaries doubled their lead with a superb 17-pass move which Redmond lashed past Konstantopoulos.
Martin Olsson started the move, intercepting the ball, and it ended when Steven Whittaker found Redmond and his touch gave him space to drill across goal and into the bottom corner from 12 yards. Shell-shocked, Middlesbrough could not respond in the first half despite managing to regain some composure. Aitor Karanka’s side saw plenty of the ball but failed to test Ruddy in the Norwich goal with the Canaries comfortable with their lead.
The Canaries offered little threat and Karanka looked to turn the screw as he replaced Vossen with Kike with 22 minutes left. But Norwich almost grabbed a third a minute later when Russell Martin powered Redmond’s corner over from five yards.
Ayala then saw a header blocked by Grabban with eight minutes remaining but Norwich saw out the final stages with ease to clinch promotion.
“You see (majority-shareholder) Delia (Smith) on the pitch at the end and it’s special,” said a delighted Neil. “It was about making sure my family is there enjoying the day because the last thing I would want to do is lose and go home with my kids crying.”
Neil added: “People have made a lot of the last year, telling me I was at Arbroath in front of 700 fans at the start of the season, but it is not a huge concern to me.
“I set goals and am really determined to achieve them, whether it is Hamilton or Norwich. I don’t get overawed by anyone or any place.” Neil, though, knows next season will be nothing like he has ever experienced.
The Scot, who is still working on his Uefa pro-licence said: “I am not silly, I know how big the task is.
“It is going to be extremely different and I am under no illusions about how difficult it is going to be, but we have our goals once we get there about what to do, so hopefully it will be enough.”
Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka preferred to reflect on the positives of recent progress, despite the dejection of failing to record a third victory over Norwich this season.
“I want to congratulate Norwich for getting promotion, but I am so proud of my players, my chairman and club,” said the Spanish former Real Madrid coach.
“When I arrived here 18 months ago the team was two points above relegation, with only 13,000 people at the Riverside (Stadium).
“Today we saw that we are a Premier League club (for our supporters) and it is my job to take them into the Premier League again.”
The Spaniard believes Boro have the foundations in place to mount another sustained promotion bid again come 2016.
“We have made a big step for what we have done since the beginning of the season and I am looking forward to next season,” he said.
Konstantopoulos, Whitehead (Nsue 46), Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, Leadbitter, Adomah, Vossen (Garcia 68), Tomlin, Bamford.
Ruddy, Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Olsson, Redmond (O’Neil 87), Howson, Tettey, Johnson, Hoolahan (Dorrans 75), Jerome (Grabban 74).
Mike Dean (Wirral).