Neil Warnock is a man whose reputation comes into the room ten minutes ahead of him to knock magazines to the floor and kick around the cushions. “You would think I was guilty of committing more crimes than Bin Laden,” the Cardiff manager said in 2002, and while putting the staggering persecution complex to one side it’s certainly true that during his most high-profile period that spanned a decade and more his combative style of management greatly jarred.
During eight largely successful years at Sheffield United, three spent fighting fires at Crystal Palace and a further two at QPR the touchline prowler, whose name famously is an anagram for ‘Colin W****r’, could be immensely petty, argumentative, temperamental, mental, and one of the finest wind-up merchants the modern game has ever produced. In life, such traits can be tolerated, in small doses at least, but in the tempestuous world of football they amount of a Molotov cocktail and so naturally season on season a list of lifelong enemies were accrued that runs to several pages.
Off the top of the head there is Gary Megson, Rafa Benitez, Stan Ternent, Sean Bean, Wally Downes, Nigel Worthington, Graham Poll, and El-Hadj Diouf: all with a back-story well worth googling. And according to the man himself we can also add the great British public to the roll-call too. “People love to hate Neil Warnock,” he morosely claimed in 2004.
Whether intentional or not, the phrasing here is pertinent. People do indeed hate Warnock and on occasion fiercely so. Or rather they used to, but we’ll come to that. What jumps out in the meantime from that statement is the suggestion of ‘love’. The man who through the years has increasingly come to resemble a Disney witch did not provoke the undiluted ire of a Ferguson or Mourinho: with Warnock there was always a sense of pantomime villain around him. We enjoyed the enmity. We loved to hate him.
That enmity began to ease during his time at Selhurst Park merging as it did with sympathy for a coach parachuted into impossible circumstances as the south London club fought against administration. To reach the play-offs with a team mainly made up of kids was nothing short of an exceptional achievement. In March 2009 the old stager – who presently boasts just shy of 1500 professional games orchestrated from the dug-out with a further 300 in non-league – stayed in the capital but moved across to QPR where he immediately deployed his motivational acumen to help stave off the threat of relegation.
The following season, in a quite remarkable turnaround in fortunes, the Hoops topped the Championship ultimately securing Warnock’s seventh career promotion. Just one promotion furnishing a manager’s CV is sufficient to see them re-employed from one failure after another. Seven reveals an unparalleled level of expertise.
His transformative success at Loftus Road finally ushered in a long overdue revisionism of Warnock’s abilities, no longer sullied by the trench warfare, feuding and tantrums that used to see him up before the FA so regularly they presumably knew how many sugars he liked in his tea. It was a shame then that this revisionism began to take hold during what was to be Warnock’s last managerial appointment, an intention to retire that he had made before but this time he meant it.
His love for retreating to his family home in Cornwall was well documented in a weekly column in the Independent newspaper, a column that also revealed Warnock’s warmer side.
His intention, now that Rangers had ruthlessly sacked him after a period of poor results, was to leave behind the cut-throat, relentlessly demanding world of football and spend time with a son and daughter he clearly cherished. Nobody, not even his detractors, would have begrudged him that.
Only then the offer to lead Leeds came up and even to a lifelong Blade that was too enticing an opportunity to turn down. “I have one big challenge left in me,” he defiantly declared as he set about resurrecting the fallen club. Alas it proved to be a case of the right man at the wrong time as the Yorkshire giants flailed from turmoil to crisis all beyond Warnock’s control and perhaps it’s apt that he was dismissed on April Fool’s Day 2013. The joke was on them.
Now in his late sixties Warnock busied himself revisiting former stomping grounds – attempting to put out yet another fire at Palace and in an advisory role at QPR – as semi-retirement beckoned.
For Warnock, football was a drug he simply couldn’t let go of while for football’s part clubs were understandably drawn to a man who knew the magic formula to instil drive and belief back into an ailing institution.
On October 5th2016 he was appointed manager at Cardiff City. It would be his fifteenth club and he insisted again to a sceptical audience, his last.
Eight weeks in to the 2017/18 season and the Bluebirds are sitting pretty atop the Championship with promotion to the top flight very much on their agenda. Should they do so it will be Warnock’s eighth. No club manager in the UK has ever presided over eight before.
They are looking down on 23 teams in a viciously competitive league due to a combination of bustling endeavour and wanton attacking fare – Warnock’s trademark – and as for their ringleader he is evidently relishing his last ‘one big challenge’, pumping up the crowd in victory, firing up the players in battle.
There’s a broad smile on his face and passion burning in his glare. Heaven help the Premier League should he get there to saviour one final – and hugely deserved – fling.
It will be carnage, pure box-office carnage. It will be pantomime and we will love to hate it.