Neil Warnock, a manager whose reputation has always eclipsed his achievements, has left Middlesbrough, but can he stay away from the game for long?
For those who weren’t in the know, it was a somewhat unusual scene. At the end of Middlesbrough’s away match with West Bromwich Albion, which had ended in a creditable but hardly earth-shattering 1-1 draw, the Middlesbrough players and their manager Neil Warnock went to the away supporters, who were fulsome in their appreciation of him. But for those who had been paying attention, the message was pretty clear and was confirmed later in the evening by a statement from the club. After a year and four months in charge of Middlesbrough, Warnock would be leaving with immediate effect.
With less than a month before his 73rd birthday, every time Neil Warnock leaves a football club, it could be the last time we see him. And going by his post-match interview, this particular departure seemed to have been handled with the manager’s dignity in the front of everybody’s mind. He was given the time to say his goodbyes, and the Middesbrough fans responded. He was given the opportunity to become the record holder for the most games as a manager, at 1,602. No matter what you might think of Warnock, it’s more pleasing to see him heading that particular list than Dario Gradi.
Warnock’s first match as a Football League manager proved to be as headline-grabbing as almost any in the 34 years since. After training as a chiropodist upon the end of his playing career and a move into management with non-league Gainsborough Trinity, he’d taken Scarborough into the Football League in the first year of automatic promotion and relegation between the League and the non-league game, and his team’s first match of the season was against Wolves, who’d just been relegated into the Fourth Division for the first time. The match itself ended in a 2-2 draw, but an afternoon scarred by crowd trouble made national news headlines after a Wolves supporter fell 30 feet through the roof of one of the stands, only narrowly escaping serious injury.
The intervening three and a half decades have hardly been light on controversy, either. Most notable of all was The Battle of Bramall Lane, an infamously bad tempered 2003 match between his Sheffield United team and West Bromwich Albion which was abandoned after three Sheffield United players were sent off and a further two had to leave the pitch with injuries, meaning that United couldn’t carry on with so few players. It was the first time that a match had ever been abandoned through the implementation of this law in the history of English football. The subsequent inquiry found no evidence that Warnock or any player had made a deliberate attempt to have the match abandoned, but only after plenty of mud had already been slung about Warnock in the press.
This all ties into his reputation, of course. Warnock has been much-reviled throughout much of his career, to the point that he is so well known by the earthy anagram of his name that even Gary Lineker has called him ‘Colin’ in the past. Indeed, when Match of the Day wanted an interview with him while he was the manager of Cardiff City and just a few days after the disappearance of Emiliano Sala, his reply was to tell them to ‘Tell Gary Lineker to f*** off’, on account of that nickname.
But this all strikes at the heart of Neil Warnock the persona versus Neil Warnock the manager. The persona always took the officials to task after matches and always seemed to be taking the game a little too seriously. But scratch at this persona, and you actually find someone with a deep knowledge of the game, a very sharp sense of humour, and more than a little self-awareness regarding what others think of him. When asked about returning to Ashton Gate with Middlesbrough while grounds were still empty last year, many years after a fractious play-off match between them and his Crystal Palace, his response was to say that he missed the fans no matter what, and that, “When I pass away, I don’t want clapping or a minute’s silence, I want a minute’s booing at Bristol City.”
But those statistics speak for themselves. He’s managed 1602 professional matches over 34 years, and across 14 different clubs. Curiously, he’s only had two spells at one club, Crystal Palace between 2007 and 2010, and then for the first half of the 2014/15 season. He’s also been promoted eight times as a manager, twice as a champion, with Scarborough in 1987 and with Queens Park Rangers in 2011, twice as a runner-up, with Sheffield United in 2006 and with Cardiff City in 2018, and four times through the play-offs.
Middlesbrough have already moved on. Chris Wilder, previously highly successful with both Northampton Town and Sheffield United, was shuffled into the managerial seat while it was still warm, and his immediate job will be to push Boro closer to the Championship play-off places. They’re four points adrift at the moment. After taking Sheffield United to two promotions in three years, there’s every cause to believe that he can be a success at The Riverside Stadium.
As for Neil himself, well, retirement is the obvious option at almost 73 years of age, and he’s been talking about it for several years, but will he able to resist the temptation for one more crack at a job? He was almost immediately installed as being among the favourites for the vacant Cardiff City position, and has been quick to say ‘never say never’ himself about his possible future in the game. And as anybody with so much as a cursory knowledge of him will surely already be aware, the appeal of the quiet life of retirement may sound like a grand idea in principle, but it’s difficult to believe that he would be particularly well-suited to such a quiet life. He will undoubtedly believe that he still has something to prove. We might not have seen the last of Neil Warnock just yet.