“Great game, this.” Neil Warnock could be heard telling the fourth official after Cardiff had equalised for the second time against Arsenal on September. His 70th birthday approaches in December, he is on his 16th managerial appointment and the enthusiasm for football is undiminished.
Despite his team conceding a late winner to Alexandre Lacazette’s thrashing finish, he stayed sanguine. “We’re not good enough to park the bus,” he said. “Football’s too negative at times. I want to send fans home having been entertained.”
That sounded like someone playing it for laughs, just along for the ride, but with Warnock, there is usually a caveat. “I’ve got the hardest job in the Premier League,” he said. “I’d like to see some of the other managers do this job.”
One of football’s great characters and a dream for reporters seeking a quote, he often adopts the “very ‘umble” persona of Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep, as if he might have an inferiority complex among the elite.
The Premier League has proved a glass ceiling and he has never managed in the top division without being either sacked or relegated, going back to Notts County finishing second-bottom in 1991-92, the last ever season of the old First Division. Since then, he has got Sheffield United and QPR promoted, but was relegated with Blades in 2006-07 amid the controversy over West Ham’s shared ownership of Carlos Tevez, and was sacked by QPR on January 2 of the 2011-12 season.
Having stepped in after Tony Pulis had quit Crystal Palace on the eve of the 2014-15 season, he was sacked with his team in the bottom three at Christmas.
But a surprise return to football with Rotherham and the taking up of what has been a poisoned chalice for many a manager at Cardiff has brought him what might be one final opportunity to end that painful record in the top tier.
Warnock, a man not to everyone’s tastes – including fans of the many clubs he has managed – is someone who likes to get his excuses in early. And this time around, he can point to the quality of a squad that last season was tipped to struggle in the Championship but ended up chasing big-spending Wolves into the closing weeks of the season, before finishing comfortably in an automatic promotion spot.
Owner Vincent Tan, stung by Cardiff spending big ahead of their sole season in the Premier League in 2013, has not exactly burst open the coffers, with little in the way of exotica in the signings of Josh Murphy from Norwich, Greg Cunningham from Preston, Bobby Reid from Bristol City and Alex Smithies from QPR.
Goals look likely to be a problem for Cardiff. The two they scored in vain against Arsenal were their first of the season. Warnock stockpiles strikers of middling value and rotates them in the hope that at least a couple of them will score the odd goal and Gary Madine, Danny Ward, and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing fit that mould.
During the 2002-03 season, the Sheffield United squad that reached the League Cup semi-final boasted Wayne Allison, Carl Asaba, Steve Kabba, Tommy Mooney, Peter Ndlovu, Iffy Onura, Dean Windass and Paul Peschisolido as striking options and Asaba scored the most with 11, and still managed to be outscored by midfielder Michael Brown’s 16.
Warnock has never been granted supreme talent to work with, considering that probably the best players he’s managed are the briefly flickering class of Adel Taarabt at QPR and a young Phil Jagielka in the Blades’ midfield and defence, while a contemporary like Sam Allardyce got to work with players like Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff.
But unlike Allardyce or Pulis, fellow travellers from the lower reaches with resolutely traditional values, Warnock was never able to make himself a manager who could kitemark safety in the top division.
Both those managers lock down their teams first and foremost before any creativity is unleashed, while Warnock is usually much more open in his approach.
He is a manager who relies on his man-motivating skills, old-school values, with his dressing-room techniques given an airing during a Sky documentary when at Sheffield United fifteen years before Pep Guardiola let the cameras in. The footage is ripe with industrial language and even as he approaches his eighth decade, he is in perpetual motion on the sidelines.
It can be an incendiary mix, something that doesn’t often appeal to opposing managers. Referees are a particular target and not every ex-player is well-disposed. Despite the many quips, he is not in the game to make friends. The years have added little in the way of mellowness.
His formula has brought great success in the lower divisions – nobody has surpassed his eight promotions in the Football League. But as yet, Warnock is still to crack the code of the Premier League.