Offside, 24 April

Sheffield United's outspoken manager should keep talking.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Not for the first time Neil Warnock’s big mouth has landed him in hot water.

The outspoken Sheffield United manager faces a FA rap following his team’s controversial FA Cup semi-final defeat by Arsenal. Warnock called for Graham Poll to be banned after the referee had tangled with Michael Tonge in the build-up to the Arsenal goal. ‘I shouldn’t say what I feel but he was their best midfielder in the move for their goal’, fumed Warnock. ‘He loved every minute of it, he smiled so much he obviously enjoyed that performance.’

While on this occasion the underdog-loving British sporting public had some sympathy for Warnock, it’s fair to say that he is not the most popular character in British football. Warnock, you see, has an uncanny knack of irritating the hell out of people. He not only riles opponents but has also fallen out with a succession of chairmen at his previous clubs.

Among the extensive list of people who won’t be sending Neil Warnock a Christmas card this year – or any year for that matter – is Stan Ternent, who once accused him of instructing a physio to eavesdrop on the Burnley dressing-room. Another is Liverpool’s Stephane Henchoz who allegedly spat at Warnock after an acrimonious Worthington Cup semi-final. Then there’s Peter Swan who played under Warnock at Bury and Plymouth. ‘I hate Neil Warnock’, Swan once said. ‘He’s a prick.’

Last year West Brom manager Gary Megson effectively accused Warnock of instructing his players to feign injury in order to get a league game against the Baggies abandoned after three United players had been sent off. Warnock’s response was typically forthright. ‘Gary is known to be one of the biggest moaners around’, he declared bluntly.

At a time when players and managers are media-trained to be bland and inoffensive in interviews, Warnock’s off-message urge to speak his mind and damn the consequences is refreshingly endearing. ‘I am passionate, and I’m not going to change just because you get a slap on the wrist for doing this, that and the other’, he insists.

When FourFourTwo magazine asked him what he would do if he was given the manager’s job at Sheffield Wednesday, Warnock was gloriously undiplomatic: ‘As long as the whole of my salary was paid within 28 days, I would buy so many tosspots – although, come to think of it, their current squad would do – and fuck ’em up so badly. Then I’d retire to Cornwall and spend the rest of my life laughing my fucking head off.’

Warnock has supported the Blades since he was a boy and clearly still retains the intense passion of a supporter. Little surprise then that he is a great admirer of Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer style of management. ‘I love [Sir Alex] Ferguson. Love him. He’s the greatest manager’, Warnock told the Daily Telegraph. ‘I like the boot hitting David Beckham even though it was an accident. It shows Ferguson’s passion and why he’s successful.’ (1)

Warnock’s own motivational techniques are somewhat unconventional. Goalkeeper Dean Kiely, who played under Warnock at Bury, recounts how he made his players drink brandy glasses filled with raw eggs and sherry every Friday after training. ‘You weren’t allowed home until they were all gone’, said Kiely. ‘There would be players on their knees, heaving and gagging, but you’d make sure you got it down.’ (2) Sheffield United’s players have been subjected to the eggs-and-sherry treatment and are reportedly fed baby food before matches as a carbohydrate boost.

His methods may be unorthodox but they evidently work. This season Warnock has taken the Blades to two cup semi-finals and probably to the First Division play-offs on a shoestring budget. Warnock has a reputation as a long-ball merchant, which he puts down to his time in charge of Notts County when, as he puts it, ‘we had a team of lads who couldn’t pass water’. His Sheffield United team are tough tackling and fully committed, as one would expect, but they can also play attractive football.

Surprisingly, Warnock has never managed a team in the Premier League. He once turned down the chance to coach Chelsea because he got stuck in traffic on the M25 when he visited Stamford Bridge for talks. Personally, I hope the Blades get promoted, mainly because I’d love to see Warnock ruffle a few feathers among football’s elite. Admittedly, his tactlessness would make the Duke of Edinburgh blush, but I think the Premiership needs more characters like Neil Warnock.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) On the Spot: Neil Warnock, Daily Telegraph, 8 March 2003

(2) Warnock’s walks on the wild side keep Blades on edge, Guardian, 12 April 2003

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Topics Politics


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