Sheffield United are back in the Premiership, led there by one of the game's most outspoken managers. Pete Green examines the enigmatic and anagrammatical Neil Warnock
It has been said many times in recent weeks that there are no suitably qualified English managers to take charge of the national team. Yet one such man has 20 years of managerial experience in England and has won promotion six times at a series of different clubs, building an unparalleled knowledge of the game in this country along the way, and in the search for Sven’s successor his name has never once been mentioned. What do you mean, you don’t want Neil Warnock to do it?
Warnock’s elevation to the Premiership with Sheffield United is the culmination of a career spent picking up ailing clubs off the floor, healing their afflictions and setting them back on their feet – most notably, perhaps, when successive promotions and an FA Cup quarter-final briefly threatened to end Notts County’s rolling decades of underachievement. It may have taken him six years to take the Blades up, but it is easy to forget those cup runs and near misses in the play‑offs – not to mention the rotten state the club was in when he arrived.
Think of Warnock, though, and you think not of his achievements as a manager but of his long and growing record of spats with referees, linesmen, chairmen, other managers and fourth officials. You think of gamesmanship, red cards and the Battle of Bramall Lane. Even in the last few weeks Nigel Worthington’s name has disappeared from his ever-shrinking Christmas card list (“I won’t deny that I flipped my fingers in his direction, but only because I was so disgusted and frustrated at being humiliated by a fellow manager”) and Warnock celebrated promotion by being sent to the stands in the Blades’ next match after a set-to with Leeds boss Kevin Blackwell – his former assistant at Bramall Lane.
Even if Warnock is rivalled for footballing unpopularity only by Charles Koppel, Peter Kenyon and Robbie Savage, you might at least expect unanimous backing for a successful manager from his own club’s supporters. This is the man, after all, who was asked what he would do were he to become manager of Sheffield Wednesday and said: “Buy some bad players, get the sack and then retire to Cornwall.” But United fan Tony Saunders recalls the defeat at Coventry in March: “We were 2-0 down at half-time and 5,500 of our own fans were chanting: ‘Warnock, Warnock, what’s the score?’ Now bear in mind that the Blades had been in the top two positions of the league for seven months at this point. But one bad performance – in fact one bad half-hour – was all it took for the fans to start having a go.”
“The purist fan is not going to be a great fan of Warnock’s teams because they work on adrenalin,” adds Rob Burns, another Blades supporter. “He says we’ve got more skilful players than we give credit for, that it’s not a throwback to the Dave Bassett days of humping it up in the air. But the irony of that is that Bassett was loved by the fans.”
The man with the most famous anagrammatical name in football is always likely to loom larger as a professional contrarian, then, than as a talented manager – at least in the minds of some. “People who know the game well can appreciate that he has proved himself to be a very good lower-league manager who might just surprise a few people in the Premiership next year,” says Tony. “However, if you ask the average journo, or the average armchair football fan, they will just know him as that offensive gobshite who rants, raves, and waves his fingers about.”
From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month