EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: I’ve got the manager buzz again, admits Neil Warnock as the 74-year-old former Huddersfield and Crystal Palace boss insists ‘I’m not putting my slippers on just yet!’
- Neil Warnock has been appointed as a manager at 19 clubs in his 43-year career
- No manager in English Football has taken charge of more matches – 1,627
- Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast ‘It’s All Kicking Off!’
It is mid-afternoon, the sun is shining and the pretty Cornish coastal town of Looe is all around us, its houses perched on the hills that rise up sharply from both sides of the river, its small fishing boats rocking gently at anchor, its hotels full with the bin ends of the summer tourist trade.
Neil Warnock is sitting outside a coffee shop beside the harbour. He looks up and his eyes brighten and he points out a flock of geese flying in formation down the river and out to sea. He says they are heading for Looe Island, just around the headland. He walks down that way sometimes.
I tell him that Pep Guardiola has a fascination with geese and their formation and that the Manchester City manager says he has learned about leadership, life and the way a football team works from watching them. ‘You wouldn’t put it past him, son, would you,’ Warnock says. ‘Some manager he is, eh.’
People stop and ask if they can have their picture taken with him. Warnock chats and laughs with them. He loves all that. An old guy with a walking cane stops. He is not interested in a selfie, he just wants to talk. How much longer is Warnock going to manage, he asks. ‘I’ll give myself another 10 years,’ Warnock says. They both laugh.
Ten more years? Stranger things have happened. Warnock is 74 and has more life in him, more verve, joie de vivre, enthusiasm and love for what he does, affection for players and more of a grasp of what makes them tick, than a lot of people half his age. He even has a presence on social media, his reputation burnished among a younger generation by clips on YouTube of him berating his players back in his pomp.
Neil Warnock – now 74 – joked that he could give himself a further 10 years in management
Warnock was full of praise for Manchester City’s all-conquering manager Pep Guardiola
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‘I was at the Open at St Andrews a couple of years back,’ he says, ‘and lads would be crossing the fairway and when they saw me, they’d shout, “You’ve got to f***ing die to get three points”.’
The years have not left him untouched. His best mate, Paul Evans, and long-time assistant, Mick Jones, both died recently. Warnock values his health.
He does more and more work to help raise awareness of prostate cancer through the LivingCare group run by Huddersfield Town’s club doctor, Stephen Feldman. It has made him more eager than ever to seize every moment.
He has taken charge of 1,627 matches in English football, more than any other manager, and even though he lost his job at Huddersfield last month after performing a miracle by saving them from relegation from the Championship last season, his appetite for a new challenge is undiminished.
‘When Huddersfield told me they wanted to go with someone else,’ Warnock says, ‘I thought to myself, “Well, at least it’s a good week to get sacked”. There was the Ryder Cup, the Rugby World Cup, the Cricket World Cup all coming up on the telly, so I settled on the sofa with some crisps and nuts and put my feet up.
‘When you look at those lads at the Ryder Cup, I had tears in my eyes two or three times. That’s why I’m still involved in sport, because of days like that. I loved Rory McIlroy having a go at that caddie, I loved that passion. I got goosepimples. You can’t replicate that anywhere outside sport.
‘That’s what you’re in it for, for those moments that you can never replicate in any other walk of life. When that whistle goes and you have got promotion, or have won an important game.
‘The team spirit at the Ryder Cup was unbelievable. The young kid, Robert MacIntyre, was having a bad time and you could see Justin Rose helping him and it changed him. That’s what the team is about, making them feel how important they are to that team.
The Football League icon has taken charge of 1,627 matches in English football, more than any other manager
Warnock has been appointed to the dugout on 19 occasions for 16 different clubs
‘It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got. Those lads don’t need to do the Ryder Cup. It just underlined what I’d been thinking, that “there’s no way you can retire from management” because you don’t get that buzz anywhere else.
‘I never said I was going to retire this time anyway. No way. I’ve got the buzz again. I know I’m getting on, bloody hell. I still get that kick out of it, though.
‘It might be I’m going to start doing February, March, April, somebody in trouble. Instead of putting my slippers on, I’ve got that bug again. I’ve got a brilliant assistant in Ronnie Jepson. I feel there’s something there again for me now.
‘They say it’s a young man’s game but I don’t think it is. When I started 45 years ago at Gainsborough Trinity and Scarborough, I thought then and think now that it’s 90 per cent man-management that gets you success.
‘You can have good players but it doesn’t mean you are going to get success. You can have all the coaching certificates, degrees and diplomas but if you can’t get the best out of your players, you’ll never win anything.’
We leave the coffee shop and walk down the quayside. Warnock wanders into the fish market. A man with a Scottish accent waylays him. He’s a Rangers fan. He says Warnock is 10-1 with the bookies to be their next manager after they fired Michael Beale. Warnock laughs. ‘I wouldn’t put any money on it,’ he says.
‘I always fancied having a go at managing in Scotland, actually. I love the history at Rangers. I love walking up those steps. It feels a bit like it did walking into the Marble Halls at Highbury. I would have liked Hearts or Hibs, so I could have had a go at the big-time clubs like Celtic and Rangers. I applied for the Aberdeen job once but I never got a reply. I had a player called Laurent D’Jaffo, who was with me at Bury and Sheffield United and he played at Aberdeen. I asked him what it was like. He said: “It’s the only place I know, gaffer, where it’s so cold the seagulls never land”.’
Is there any club he would not manage? I’m thinking of Reading, perhaps, where supporters once chased him round the car park at the Madejski Stadium, or Stoke, whose fans serenaded him with ‘Warnock is a w*****’ in his final game in charge of Huddersfield, or Sheffield Wednesday, the enemy for any Sheffield United fan.
Warnock may have been known as something of a scourge of officials, but he has great respect for Howard Webb
He was given the sack by Huddersfield earlier this season despite miraculously keeping them up
‘No,’ he says. ‘The biggest compliment I get when I start with a new club is that the fans say, “We never liked you before you came but we’re glad you’re here”. I didn’t mind what happened at Stoke. The humour is lacking a little bit now for too many managers. They seem to forget about enjoying it.
‘I love it with fans who have a go at me. Every one of those clubs where their fans have a go at me, I would manage. It wouldn’t worry me at all.’
We cross the river on the old stone bridge that links the two sides of the town and climb up the steep path to Warnock’s house and its views of the Cornish coast, the harbour and valley disappearing into the countryside beyond.
Cornwall has been his home for 30 years, ever since he managed Plymouth. He even brings his teams down here for pre-season games, usually against sides from Bodmin, Liskeard and Tavistock.
The 74-year-old pities Webb’s task of improving the quality of officiating
‘It does them good,’ he says. ‘They change in old changing rooms. After the game, they sign all the autographs and have all the photographs. Nowadays, too many get off the bus with their headphones on and never sign an autograph. I don’t like that. It’s all about the fans.’
There’s a terrace outside, so we sit for a while as the sun is going down. He talks about team spirit again. He says it is the key to everything he has achieved — his record eight promotions, the escapes from relegation that he has masterminded, his sheer longevity. If there is a secret to his success, and his popularity, it is this.
‘Every player’s different,’ he says. ‘You have to rollick some and love some, kick a backside at times. You have to be a father to them, care about them and their families. But you have to have laughter. Most of all, you have to have laughter.
‘My enjoyment is on the training ground. I give all the lads stick. I am funny. I’m sure, behind the scenes, they give me stick. You can’t put it in black and white. It’s having a laugh. It’s just how I am. I like making poor players average and average players good. I like pushing the boundaries.
‘Having a laugh goes hand in hand with building confidence and relaxing them. If they’re relaxed and happy, they will go through a brick wall for me. I’ve never had the best team but if you ask managers who they don’t want to play against, I bet I’m in the top two.’
Warnock showed his appreciation for humour, claiming that side of management ‘is lacking’ in the modern game
The veteran manager has so far celebrated no fewer than eight promotions in his long career
Warnock’s wife, Sharon, is out for the night. His kids, James, Natalie, Amy and William, who he cannot stop talking about, have all flown the nest. And anyway, the football is on. I watch Newcastle versus Paris Saint-Germain on my laptop. Warnock fires up the big screen in the living room and flicks between Rotherham-Bristol City and Leeds-QPR.
He tuts at a couple of refereeing decisions and praises a couple more. Known as a scourge of officials, he is an admirer of Howard Webb and pities him his task of improving the standard of officiating in England. He admires Michael Oliver, too, although not his decision to spare Mateo Kovacic a red card in Arsenal against Manchester City.
‘My dad was a referee in the Midland League,’ he says. ‘He was really good. I asked him once why he never got to the top and he said he didn’t sell enough raffle tickets at the referees’ annual dinner.
‘I used to love reffing myself. When I was a player, I’d ref on a Sunday in the Sheffield league after a Saturday game as a warm-down.
‘There was one team — they were called Arbourthorne EA, because most of their players lived on a road called Eastern Avenue — and they were known as the hardest team in Sheffield. They kicked lumps out of people. I enjoyed doing their games. They never gave me any trouble.’
The games are nearing their end. Soon, Warnock’s phone starts lighting up. News is seeping out that Wednesday have sacked their manager, Xisco Munoz, after 10 games without a win. Warnock is already one of the favourites to take over. Radio stations and journalists in Yorkshire want to know if he would be interested.
His mind drifts back to Sheffield. He is thinking about his best moment in the game and cannot pick one. Each of his eight promotions were special, he says, and he laughs at the memory of driving back into Nottingham after Notts County had won a Wembley play-off final.
‘There’s a pub in Clifton on the way back into the city on a roundabout — I think it’s called the Crusader — and there were thousands of people waiting for us there, so we just kept telling the coach driver to go round the roundabout again. The poor bloke must have got dizzy. We went round about 12 times.’
His memory alights on one other moment, too. ‘My dad worked 16-hour shifts at English Steel,’ Warnock says, ‘and he used to rush home, change quick, we’d get on the bus, get down to the terminus at the bottom of Granville Road, about a mile from Sheffield United’s ground, run up and go through the turnstiles.
Warnock was one of the favourites to take over from Xisco Munoz at Sheffield Wednesday despite their rivalry with the Blades
Warnock despaired at the decision not to send off Man City’s Mateo Kovacic for his two infamous challenges against Arsenal
‘We knew someone on the turnstiles so if he was on, I used to sneak under. Then we ran up these stairs, which were like Mount Everest as a kid for me, and you could smell the hot dogs at the top and then you saw the pitch and the green, green grass of Bramall Lane.
‘When I got the job there in 1999 — my dad never saw it, sadly — I drove to the ground the night Derek Dooley told me I had got it, parked my car at the back of the car park and looked at the sign saying Sheffield United FC and thought about my mum and dad for about an hour because I knew how proud they would be.
‘When we got promoted to the Premier League, we needed Leeds not to win to go up and I was on my tractor, cutting down weeds. Sharon came running across shouting, “They’ve drawn, they’ve drawn, we’re promoted”. I’m crying now, thinking about it.’
The calls of another flock of geese making for the island drift over on the wind. One day soon, this month or next, Warnock will take a call and head back north. His travels are not over yet.
To see Neil Warnock on stage, talking about his remarkable career, visit www.gotoagig.com Meet and greet tickets are available
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