Neil Warnock and the art of turning things around

Neil Warnock and the art of turning things around

WHEN NOTTINGHAM FOREST boss Mark Warburton raged at Cardiff’s style of play and persistent time wasting, it was nothing new for Bluebirds boss Neil Warnock. Warburton, who had seen his side lose 2-0 to the Warnock’s men, was just one of many opposition managers and officials to criticise the Yorkshireman’s side.

Forest legend Kenny Burns also lashed out at Warnock. They were followed by Brentford manager Dean Smith, who said, “Personally, I’d probably want my money back because the ball was probably only on the pitch for 20 minutes,” after his side also fell to a 2-0 loss to Warnock’s Cardiff. Paul Heckingbottom claimed that “Cardiff’s gamesmanship produces a garbage match.” His Barnsley side lost 1-0.

Warnock’s response? “You get bitterness in the game, usually when you’ve beaten somebody.” He’s faced plenty throughout his career.

After an 11-year playing career, which saw him turn out for Chesterfield, Rotherham and Barnsley, Neil Warnock hung up his boots in order to concentrate on his coaching career. He received his first managerial gig in 1981 with Northern Premier League side Gainsborough Trinity, before guiding Scarborough to the Conference title in 1987.

A year later he made history as manager of Notts County, guiding them to back-to-back promotions to reach the First Division in 1991. He turned down lucrative contract offers from Sunderland and Chelsea – what a story that would’ve been.

Spells at Huddersfield, Plymouth, Bury and Oldham would follow before Warnock got his dream job in 1999 as manager of his boyhood club Sheffield United. There, he masterminded one of British football’s great underdog stories. He led his side to League Cup and FA Cup semi-finals in 2002/03, only to lose to Liverpool and Arsenal respectively.

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In 2006, he led his hometown club to the Premier League, guiding the Blades to runners-up in the Championship. Life in the Premier League thrust Warnock into the public spotlight and, ultimately, his disputes and touchline became more visible.

If you take one look at Neil Warnock’s career, you get an understanding of the terrier-like personality he has. A long list of clubs, managers, players and officials exist under the ‘Disputes’ label, all of whom Warnock has either fallen out with or publicly criticised. From Stéphane Henchoz to Gareth Southgate, the list is rather impressive.

Perhaps his most famous dispute is that of Sheffield United’s relegation from the Premier League in 2007. Warnock was outraged that West Ham were not punished with a points deduction by the FA for fielding Carlos Tevez, a player who saved the Hammers from relegation and sealed Warnock and Sheffield United’s fate. It’s a dispute that lives on today.

Warnock became well-known for his tirades. Still today, videos of his rants are shared across social media. In one YouTube video, which has over 80,000 views, Warnock berates Blades club captain Chris Morgan for failing to pick up his man at a set-piece. “You – pick your fucking man up. If someone else scores, that’s my fault,” is one of the many foul-mouthed rants Warnock produces. In another, Warnock is heard shouting angry rants at the officials during a match against Millwall – “we’re the away team, that’s the fucking difference” he shouts.

Whilst these profanities and tirades make Warnock an easy target for criticism from other managers and those in the media, in truth they somewhat endear him to his own club’s fans and players. He wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers to get the job done.

After taking some time out of football, Warnock gained a reputation as a fixer. As an experienced manager in the football league, the Yorkshireman was one that club owners would turn to in times of desperation. In 2007, Crystal Palace turned to Warnock to save them from relegation after the sacking of Peter Taylor. In the space of six months, he had turned the Eagles into promotion contenders.

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In 2010, Queens Park Rangers appointed Warnock in a bid to avoid relegation from the Championship. After an impressive 3-1 win against West Brom in his first match, he continued to turn the club’s fortunes around. Warnock helped the Rs comfortably avoid relegation that season, before taking them up as champions the following year.

In 2012, Warnock took over a Leeds United side in disarray but worked his magic to turn things around and guided the club to a comfortable mid-table position by the end of the season. Whilst returns to Crystal Palace and QPR would be short-lived, Warnock was appointed as Rotherham manager in February 2016, with the club destined for relegation. A run of 11 wins, ending with a 4-0 thumping of MK Dons, sealed Rotherham’s place in the Championship for another season. Warnock had turned things around again.

It was these successes that gave him a reputation as a fixer. After 35 years in management, and claiming he had managed his last club, Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan turned to Warnock to save a club that threatened to spiral out of control. Just four days earlier, Tan had sacked the club’s manager Paul Trollope after a catastrophic loss to Burton Albion. Trollope, Chris Coleman’s assistant manager with Wales at the European Championships, had failed to inspire the Bluebirds despite trying to play the same brand of football as Coleman had with the national side.

“It’s no exaggeration to say League One was beckoning,” says Dominic Booth of Wales Online. The club was in turmoil and, whilst Trollope was to blame for the downfall on the pitch, many of the club’s problems stemmed from owner Vincent Tan and his rebrand in 2012.

Tan had changed the club’s traditional colours from blue to red in a bid to make the club more marketable in Asia. The move divided fans, with many yet to return to the stadium and vowing to never do so whilst Tan is still in charge. Then club captain Mark Hudson admitted that the rebrand “pulled the heart and soul out of the club.”

Despite Tan returning the club’s colours to blue in 2015, on the advice of his mother, there has been an air of negativity around the club ever since. What has followed is a period of austerity, with Tan unwilling to push money into the club or improve the squad. Players were released from contracts to save wages, resulting in huge losses on transfer fees, and low-budget managers were appointed to save money. To say that Neil Warnock was needed was an understatement.

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Now, Booth says, “life is somewhat different.” Warnock has turned things around. On the pitch, he saved Cardiff from relegation, securing a 12th-place finish. He revitalised some of the club’s failing talents, none more so than striker Kenneth Zohore, who Warnock has transformed into one of the league’s hottest talents. “The Dane is perhaps an allegory for Cardiff’s development in the past year himself, going from a non-scoring squad player to coveted kingpin striker,” Booth states.

No one at Cardiff is a testament to the Warnock affect more than defender Bruno Ecuele Manga, who looked set to leave the club last summer as his contract expired. He stayed, though, and when asked why, he said, “Because the manager wanted me.” His decision has been vindicated. “So many things have changed with the manager, the team and everyone here,” Manga explains.

That change is clearly evident. For a manager, your players are a reflection of you on the pitch. Warnock asks his players to reflect his passion and dedication, and they have done just that. In return, the fans are on board once again. In truth, this writer believes that Cardiff and Warnock were made for each other. Both the fans and the manager value hard work and passion above all else. Whilst their rivals down the M4 west in Swansea have traditionally valued aesthetics, the Cardiff faithful have been content with pragmatic but effective football.

When the club was promoted to the Premier League in 2013 under Malky Mackay, they played in the same way – pragmatic, organised but effective. Warnock follows the same blueprint.

It remains to be seen how far Warnock can take this Cardiff side, however, in typical fashion, he is certainly not going to get carried away by their current position, telling the BBC: “I’m not trying to play it down, I’ve just been around a bit longer than you guys and I know how quickly things change.” He, the board and the fans would be delighted with a playoff position, but, with Warnock in charge, the possibility of more is always prevalent.

The Yorkshireman has developed a reputation for turning things around throughout his long managerial career, but the true impact he has is perhaps more evident at Cardiff than anywhere else. Despite the criticism from all corners of the Championship, Neil Warnock has given life to a club in danger of fading away. 

By Scott Salter @scottsltr

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