As a Reading fan, I’m not supposed to like Neil Warnock. In a game between the Royals and Warnock’s Sheffield United in 2007, the Yorkshireman was seen doing a kicking motion to his players, potentially suggesting that they should put go in very hard on tackles in response to a Steve Sidwell challenge on Chris Armstrong. A touchline brawl ensued, and Warnock has been an unpopular figure in Berkshire ever since, earning the anagrammatic nickname Colin W***er. But we’re far from the only club to have a historic dislike of him. The 69-year-old is a character who easily winds people up the wrong way – there is a whole section on his Wikipedia page titled ‘Disputes’, featuring descriptions of bust-ups with no less than 33 players, coaches, referees, clubs and chairmen.
But after Warnock achieved a record eighth career promotion on Sunday as his Cardiff City team were confirmed as a Premier League side for 2018/19, it’s very difficult to ignore the success he has had in his 38 years as a manager. Whilst the likes of Alan Pardew and Mark Hughes have been criticised for being given jobs ‘just because they’re British’, Warnock’s impressive track record has justified his continuing presence in the game that has seen a positive impact at virtually every team he’s been at.
Retiring as a player at the age of just 30 to focus on coaching, Warnock cut his teeth in non-league management and earned his first promotion by taking Scarborough into the Football League for the first time in their history, winning the the Football Conference title in 1987. His work in North Yorkshire was recognised by Notts County, who Warnock guided from the third tier to the top flight following two successive promotions in 1990 and 1991. He also achieved consecutive promotions in 1995 and 1996, but with different clubs: taking Huddersfield Town to Division One (and the Football League Trophy final) before overseeing Plymouth’s immediate return to Division Two the following year.
The club that Warnock has spent by far the longest at during his career is his boyhood club Sheffield United, who he joined in December 1999. After six and half years of trying to get the Blades into the Premier League (including one play-off final defeat), he finally succeeded in 2006 by finishing second in the Championship. Five years later, he went one better by winning the title with QPR to end the West London side’s 15 year absence from the top flight. He had taken over at Loftus Road just over a year previously with the club three points above the relegation zone.
But earning promotion to the top flight with Cardiff this season might just be his greatest achievement of all. His arrival in the Welsh capital had been preceded by two and a bit seasons of mediocrity following the Bluebirds’ relegation from the Premier League in 2014. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had overseen the drop back down despite being appointed with the club above the relegation zone, fared equally as poorly in the second tier and departed just seven games into the campaign. Russell Slade would lead the club to 11th and 8th place finishes but drive fans away with his dreary brand of football in the process. The decision to move Slade to a head of football role and appoint Paul Trollope, who hadn’t held a managerial role for six years, in the summer of 2016 was a strange one. Unsurprisingly, Trollope lasted just 12 games (two wins) at the helm and was sacked with Cardiff second bottom of the Championship. That was when Vincent Tan, rumoured to be interested in selling the club at the time, turned to Warnock.
The way that the veteran boss has transformed the Bluebirds in the 18 months has been nothing short of remarkable. Recruitment is key in the Championship and he has got it spot on. Whilst the likes of Wolves, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa have spent unprecedented amounts in recent seasons, Warnock has assembled the core of his squad in South Wales through bargain buys. Sol Bamba and Junior Hoilett, who the Yorkshireman knew from his spells at Leeds United and QPR respectively, arrived for free within a week of his appointment and have become crucial to the side this season. The latter finished as the club’s top scorer in 2017/18 with 11 goals.
Last summer, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and winger Nathaniel Mendez-Laing were also brought in for absolutely nothing, and despite having just 17 Championship starts between them before the campaign, have also played key roles in promotion. Then there’s Callum Paterson. Signed on a Bosman transfer from Hearts as a right-back, Warnock has converted him into a midfielder with freedom to roam. It’s a decision that has proved a masterstroke, with the Scottish international contributing 10 goals and five assists in his debut campaign.
But for me, the most important thing Warnock has done in his time with Cardiff is unite a club and a fanbase that were in a state of incoherence upon his arrival. He has instilled a passion and hunger in the squad that was lacking before, and fostered a momentous team spirit that has made the Bluebirds hard to beat. They weren’t even in the play-offs conversation, let alone the promotion conversation, ahead of the season, but five wins from their first five games quickly made them a force to be reckoned with. Of course it would have been easy to drop off after that fast start, Ipswich Town were second with an 100% record after four games before ending up in 12th, but Cardiff rarely let their guard down over 46 games – they didn’t drop out of the top four all season.
They might not play the most attractive football in the division, no Neil Warnock side ever has, but they have achieved a deserved promotion through a direct, hard-working and no nonsense approach. The football purist may squirm at the fact that Cardiff ranked bottom for total number of passes and pass accuracy and 21st for average possession in the second tier in 2017/18, but who cares? The Championship is an incredibly difficult league to get out of and they’ve found a way of doing it. It might not be pretty, but it’s effective. Throughout the campaign, every player in the team was willing to make that last ditch tackle, put their body on the line and give absolutely everything for 90 minutes. That is one of the hardest things to coach in football, and it has been at the core of Warnock’s Cardiff transformation.
This never-say-die attitude is personified by skipper and player of the season Sean Morrison, who has become one of the best centre-backs in the league under Warnock. An imposing figure at the back, he has led by example and driven the team every step of the way. The 28-year-old has been part of a formidable defence – along with Lee Peltier, Joe Bennett, Bruno Ecuele Manga and the aforementioned Sol Bamba and Neil Etheridge – that is not made up of star names but conceded the joint fewest goals in the Championship in 2017/18. Morrison has also contributed a very impressive seven goals on the way to promotion, including a brace in the penultimate game against Hull City that will live long in the memory for fans.
Warnock himself has described this promotion as “the best one by a mile”. Considering the incredible transformation he has carried out on and off the pitch in such a short space of time, you’d find it difficult to argue.
But even at clubs where he hasn’t earned promotion, Warnock has overseen impressive turnarounds. Torquay United were bottom of the Division Three table when Warnock took over as boss in February 1993, but lost just five of their final 15 games under his guidance to survive relegation out of the Football League. In 2007/08, the Yorkshireman would take Crystal Palace from two points above the Championship relegation places to the play-offs in the space of just six months. Meanwhile, Rotherham United were three points adrift in the second tier drop zone when Warnock was appointed in February 2016. He oversaw an 11 game unbeaten run at the New York Stadium that helped the club secure safety with three matches to spare and end up finishing nine points clear of trouble.
The big question is how he will do back in the top flight, because traditionally, the answer has been very poorly. His Sheffield United side went straight back down to the Championship in 2007, whilst he was sacked just months into first tier campaigns with QPR and Crystal Palace. Cardiff’s only previous season in the Premier League was also a disaster, as they finished rock bottom of the table in 2013/14.
So expectations will likely be low for only the Bluebirds’ second top flight campaign in 56 years, but that may well work in Warnock’s favour. He can take heart from how well Brighton and Huddersfield have done after being given little more than a prayer upon promotion last year, whilst the same team spirit and togetherness that played such a key part in Cardiff going up could take them far again.
Warnock will be 70 years old when his contract runs out in South Wales in 2020, so whilst you wouldn’t rule out him carrying on beyond that, it seems likely that his current job will be his last. It will certainly be a well-earned retirement when the time comes, following a career of scepticism but an unprecedented amount of success in the Football League.