• Ian Smith

Neil Warnock - an overdue appreciation piece

This is my second attempt at putting my thoughts down on just how mad the turnaround in feelings towards Neil Warnock has been this last year and a few months for me.

I could easily just write something along the lines of “he used to be a w****r, but now he’s alright”, but that doesn’t cover the enormity of the full 180 performed by yours truly. It feels like some form explanation is required to avoid being labelled a ‘fickle supporter’, because the reality of it is much more complex than that.

For years I despised the bloke, couldn’t stand the sight of him on my tele, the sound of his voice, the endless moaning about officials. Here was a man who loved spouting nonsense to anyone who would listen and for some irritating reason the likes of Sky Sports used to lap it up.

Everything appeared to be someone else’s fault, and though that trend carried on throughout his time on Teesside, something about him just felt that little bit different.

He’d endeared himself to me, “but how?” you ask (or not).

The answer to that has been very difficult to convey not only to other people, but to myself too. How can you dislike someone so intently, only to eventually be convinced that they’re alright when all is said and done?

When he was announced back in June 2020, to say I had mixed emotions didn’t quite cover it.

Change was badly needed, we had to arrest the slide as League 1 was more than a distinct possibility. However, not only was the switch from new era and ‘Golden Thread’ to pragmatism in the face of the Championship trapdoor depressing enough, it was compounded by the arrival of the ultimate footballing dinosaur.

Wasn’t there anyone else out there who was just a tad more likable? Someone who wouldn’t cause instant indigestion the moment I clapped eyes on them wearing Boro training gear?

I can still see one of the first images of him put out by the club, smiling away on the Rockliffe pitches. No matter how many times I rubbed my eyes he was still there.

At this point I feel like I need to add some context to the above.

Growing up in South Yorkshire (namely Doncaster) I have had friends from either side of the Sheffield divide, and aside from a few games at Bramall Lane as a kid (an unfathomable happening when I think back) I was staunchly of a Wednesday persuasion.

One of the main reasons for that was Warnock. The pantomime villain, the circus clown, the overall s***house nature of his character made The Blades very hard to like, plus the fact one of my closest mates was/is an Owls supporter who I’d attended games with, you kind of see how I came to the conclusion that I vehemently disliked Warnock.

Those eight years he managed United between 1999 and 2007 were formative ones for me, taking me from my mid-teens into my early 20’s. From 13/14 my feelings on football had expanded beyond just enjoying the game and being in love with Middlesbrough, to having wider opinions on the game.

Like it or not about football, but around those years for most it starts to become tribal. Allegiance's form, you start to take sides on certain things, and with someone like Warnock it’s impossible for everyone to agree – they don’t come any more divisive.

His behaviour in the infamous ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ left a lot to be desired, on the surface at least. Depending on who or what you believe, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to apportion some of the blame of that day's events to the then Sheffield United manager.

His post-match comments, likening then West Bromwich Albion manager Gary Megson to Osama Bin Laden just served to inflame the situation, not least because the comparison was incredibly inappropriate, Bin Laden’s not that bad (sorry, poor joke).

Moments like these just seemed to be the sort of thing that Warnock thrived on, being on the wind up. I guess he’s a bit like a Yorkshire version of Jose Mourinho, but then again, I like Jose, but is that because he’s generally been on the right side of history for me? And he’s a suave guy called Jose too.

Anyway, I digress.

He was unbearable.

The now famous meme of him doing his achingly poor impression of Liam Gallagher into the Sky cameras whilst at Cardiff used to make me want to throw up

He wasn’t nicknamed ‘Colin’ for any old reason. Not an ‘affectionately known as’ moniker, oh no.

He has a rather unfortunate anagram of his name. Someone who clearly disliked him made the discovery to their delight, I’m sure. The surname of that name is also the word Warnock hopes is chanted loudly on terraces around the country upon his passing, rather than the customary minutes silence or applause.

He even had form for upsetting his own people.

He wrote in the past in his autobiography that actor, and Sheffield United fan, Sean Bean had burst into his office following their relegation from the Premier League back in 2007, and aimed a “foul-mouthed tirade” at him, pinning the blame at his door for their demise.

One can only hope Bean labelled Warnock a ‘b*****d’, the Yorkshireman’s proclivity for the insult hilariously highlighted in his title role in the 90’s drama Sharpe.

But w****r (or b*****d) or not, he was now being named as Boro’s new boss, and for me it threw up a fair bit of consternation.

Take away all the preconceptions, the feelings I had of him, a clinical view of the appointment was that it was a good one, not least because of his track record at getting teams to play for him, and with Rotherham and Crystal Palace particularly having saved them from relegation.

That threat was very real for us.

In the end I just had to accept that what will be, will be. It’s like when you’re ill, you need medicine to combat your ailment. That’s exactly what Warnock was, an antidote to relegation, nothing more, nothing less.

But as time passed and the upturn in fortunes came, I began to notice something rather strange – I was actually starting to have begrudging feelings of positivity towards him.

He had the sort of effect on players that we probably needed more than ever – unity, belief and a desire to work their bloody socks off. He developed a siege mentality, something that in tough situations such as ours quite often works, and it did. Everyone pulled in the same direction; the players played for a manager who’s seemingly at odds with anything and anyone outside of your bubble (quite literally, these were the height of pandemic times).

Maybe he was one of those managers that when he’s at your club he’s king? That’s what it began to feel like as I struggled to reconcile with such sympathies, not least with a man I’d openly despised throughout my adult life.

It stood to reason that my long-standing thoughts on him were based on who he managed (mainly Sheff Utd), the snippets of drivel we’d be subjected to after games and the constant dogs abuse he dished out during a game to anyone not on his wavelength. After that, it was obvious that whenever I’d see him on tele with his big stupid grin I’d want to pick up the nearest thing to me and aim it straight for him.

But I’d never had the benefit (only realised now as it being that) of listening to him speak so enthusiastically about the game at length, and now about our club.

He’s relatable, especially to me, or anyone really from Yorkshire or further north. Down to earth, humble and just an all-round good egg, he seems to be the sort of bloke you could sit with for hours and chat about football.

And each week we were being treated (yes, really) to 20-30 minutes of what felt like intimate chit-chat over Zoom to the press. The lack of real press conferences and the circus that would normally follow him just wasn’t there, leaving us with what felt like watching someone talk to you in your front room with a cuppa.

In the vacuum that was the height of Covid, with lockdowns aplenty and being cut off from the outside world, these virtual pressers offered our only real glimpse into the day to day of our football club, these were unique times, and here was this jovial and genial old fella to guide us through it all.

His relationship with the players also shone too.

Turning the likes of Anfernee Dijksteel, Marc Bola and Paddy McNair into the players they are now most certainly endeared him to me further. The wholesome content seen week in week out on Twitter of Warnock embracing his charges really warmed the cockles of this heart.

The vidoes of him cycling to Rockliffe, being spotted out and about, and the various stories he’d tell of his travels in the area and how he felt at home - it might well have all been patter to butter us up, but unlike Tony Pulis two managers before him, it didn’t just feel like it’d come from a management book of clichés.

Here we had a man in his 70’s just enjoying life, and we all had the privilege of watching him close up. Like it or not, the bloke is charismatic, he’s entertaining, and now I’m aware that in saying this I may sound like my feelings are hugely inconsistent with what I’ve said further up this regrettably long piece.

But maybe I just needed him to manage Boro to realise that he’s not a wanker after all.

You may have noticed that I’ve not really gone into his one and only full season, or the part of this one he’d got to before being replaced by Chris Wilder (another, on a lesser scale I’m having to reassess my feelings for), but on reflection perhaps that’s because I’ll remember him for his biggest achievement in saving us from relegation, and also, I’m choosing to focus more on the man himself, rather than his Boro record.

To give him last season seemed fair after what he’d done, but had he been shown the door, or had he decided to walk away post-Sheffield Wednesday as the 2019/20 season finally drew to a close, I’d have been happy enough.

In hindsight it would’ve probably been the right thing to do.

My worry is that he would end up staying too long, and with fans back at The Riverside this season he’d end up being hounded out if things went badly wrong. Thankfully it never really got to that, although there were numerous occasions where we were on the cusp of it.

In the end he was moved on just as swiftly as he arrived, Steve Gibson obviously taking an opportunity to snare a quality manager whilst they were available, but you sense that he could see this season petering out to nothing.

I’ve been vocal in my thoughts on Warnock and whether he should’ve stayed, and my only remit for him was to have us bang in promotion contention, otherwise there wasn’t much point in him staying from a footballing perspective considering the longevity just wasn’t going to be there.

But I’m in no way scared to admit that I felt quite sad as he departed. And given the speed of his exit it doesn’t feel like we’ve had much time for reflection before a new manager has been thrust upon us.

And hearing Warnock describe the apparent manner of his sacking (clearly wasn’t the mutual separation the Club have tried to portray), it’s not hard to feel sorry for him in some ways.

For me to say that does feel rather weird. Pre-Boro there didn’t appear to be a scenario where I could envisage myself feeling any degree of sympathy for him (aside from the tragic Emiliano Sala situation which clearly rocked Warnock - that was just awful for all concerned).

But perhaps it’s testament to his endearing qualities, his infectious enthusiasm, and his love of the game. The fact he’s just a decent bloke who, after four decades in management, still has the same hunger and desire he did when he first took charge at Gainsborough Trinity in 1980.

Who knows, if he decides to take on another “one last challenge”, he may cross paths with us once more? But I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to dislike him in a way I did before.

And I think that’s probably the biggest compliment I could pay him, that despite all the tricks and the moaning, the berating of officials (something I’ve come to understand more these days given some of the horrendous decisions he, and we, have had to endure) and touchline antics, I’d struggle to muster up any annoyance.

Watching him visibly moved by the reception he got following his final game away at WBA was extremely poignant.

If that was the last we see of Neil Warnock the manager then I’m glad I finally got to discover that he wasn’t so bad after all, and maybe next time I see him on tele laughing away, I might not feel the urge to launch the remote.

164 views0 comments