the square ball week: neil warnock, gafferBack
It’s the book, according to Harry Redknapp’s blurb on the cover, “that tells you what managing is really like.” The Gaffer, by Neil Warnock, promises on its inside flap “countless insights into the trials and tribulations” of a “leading professional football manager.” The back cover lists some of the situations a top manager might face: “Are the fans cheering or jeering? The players are dead on their feet – is it the exhaustion of victory or defeat? The captain approaches: ‘What shall we do, gaffer?’”
I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets before you read the book for yourself. But here are the last two words of Neil Warnock’s The Gaffer: “Be lucky.”
The Gaffer is not a traditional autobiography; that’s Made in Sheffield: My Story, from 2008, which takes Neil from the tragic years when, told by a doctor it was brought on by a fall when she was pregnant, he blamed himself for his mother’s multiple sclerosis and early death; to his career as a fourth division winger, chiropodist, greengrocer and eventually Premier League manager. The Gaffer tones down the “ruined my fucking weekend” salt of the earlier book and sets out instead to be a guide to football management, told through the story of Neil Warnock’s last three jobs: the difficulties of administration at Crystal Palace; the chase to the Premier League, and the battle to stay there, with QPR; and whatever it was he was trying to do at Leeds. Along the way, Neil “draws heavily on a lifetime of experiences at all levels in football.”
There is a fundamental flaw here. Neil Warnock may have had a lifetime in football, first as a journeyman player, then as a manager. But it’s clear, from reading these books, that it has taught him nothing. Some years, everything went right and the team was successful and it was terrific. Some years, everything went wrong and the team couldn’t catch a break and so Warnock quit in a huff. Here’s how Warnock won the Championship with QPR: he let Adel Taarabt – Taarbs – do what he wanted on and off the pitch, and kept Shaun Derry – Dezza – from killing him, every week until promoted. The end.
Take the crucial late season match against Cardiff. Under Warnock’s management Taarbs has by now developed a visible gut and is barely showing up for training. “It’s not right,” Dezza tells Curly – Keith Curle, the coach. “I have to do something.” Warnock pulls Dezza aside before the game, but, “before I could say owt Dezza said, ‘It’s all right gaffer … I just have to get my head round it and I will do.’” The match begins and Cardiff go ahead after six minutes. “They could have had three or four,” writes Warnock, apparently helpless, “Then Taarbs pulled one out of the hat. At half time I took Adel to one side and said to him, ‘We need a bit more magic from you.’” Taarabt scores again and the game ends 2-2. Inverting The Pyramid this is not, but nonetheless, after the game Warnock is too emotional to speak to his players. “I actually had a tear in my eye.” And that, as far as the football went at QPR, was essentially that.
It’s perhaps telling that when Joey Barton arrived at QPR and presented Warnock with a list of changes the senior players wanted, among them was the vague but devastating “Better training.” And it’s no surprise that while Warnock agreed with Barton’s “legitimate points” about the facilities and the masseurs, he “didn’t accept his criticism of the training.” Warnock learned a lot while he was a player about what worked for him, about sprints and hurdles in pre-season instead of long distance runs, for example, but doesn’t seem to have noticed that these techniques didn’t take him much further than Hartlepool and Scunthorpe as a player. Or that things have changed since the seventies.
“The lads get a lot more rest with me,” says Neil. “The layman might say, ‘They can’t be fit enough, the team that trains three times a week will be fitter,’ but I think that’s rubbish.” The late goals conceded by Leeds under Warnock suggest the layman might have a point. “We have all these fitness experts now. I have guys who say ‘They’ve done enough now, gaffer,’ but I just tell ‘em, ‘I’ll tell you when they’ve done enough, not the computer.’” Thursday is “the technical day. Friday we’ll do set pieces.” If this sounds like a schedule from a mid-eighties third division club, well, it probably is. Then it’s back to judging the mood of the players, and making Pascal Chimbonda train without his hat on. “I wouldn’t really describe myself as a coach,” says Neil. “I couldn’t put a session on like these lads do now, it’s fantastic, the movement, the repetitiveness, what they do.”
It’s not really a surprise to learn that Warnock is not a sophisticated tactician, and it’s fair enough, if he can be successful by spotting talents and motivating players. But while he claims that “what I do best is make people believe,” this is said in Made in Sheffield three pages after the admission it took him the best part of three weeks to get over a bad refereeing decision at Sheffield United: “It was no wonder the players were flat when I was sulking like that.” “In this game you’ve just got to forget it,” he says, not forgetting it, not motivating the players, and nearly blowing promotion.
As for spotting players: “At Sheffield United I bought a centre-half, Danny Cullip, with a view to him being my leader on the pitch, my captain. I thought he was a good talker. I realised within a week he talked a better game than he played. The only answer was to get shot of him quickly.” Anyone wondering about the captaincy of Lee Peltier at Leeds might find a clue here. “A few years later,” continues Neil, “I spent a million pounds plus on each of Ade Akinbiyi and Geoff Horsfield to provide that final push to get Sheffield United into the Premier League. They were decent players, but once I put them in the team it became clear they weren’t right for us.” Warnock goes back to “Mr Reliable,” Neil Shipperley, who he had just dropped so his two big signings could play.
You would be forgiven for thinking here of Messrs. Morison and Becchio, and of Ryan Hall, and wondering why Warnock didn’t learn from these lapses of judgement, especially as the Akinbiyi/Horsfield anecdote appears twice in ‘The Gaffer’ and once again in his autobiography proper, ‘Made in Sheffield.’ The problem is that the point Warnock is trying to make with this thrice-told tale is not that he is a bad judge of players who will waste £2m on a whim, but that he is a strong, experienced manager unafraid to make tough decisions. “A few of the directors must have grumbled and I doubt I could have done that when I was younger, but [dropping them] worked as we went up,” he says proudly. Only Neil Warnock could sort out a problem like that, he’s saying. Whether another manager would cause themselves a problem like that in the first place doesn’t seem to preoccupy Neil much, who went on to stockpile strikers at QPR and replace another Mr Reliable, Luciano Becchio, with Steve Morison, who he’d admired “since a performance for Millwall against my QPR.”
The story of that transfer has been widely covered now. Warnock spent a season indulging every whim of Adel Taarabt, culminating in Taarbs being subbed on for the last game to take the armband from Dezza and lift the league trophy, despite being absent without leave that week until half an hour before kick off. But Warnock couldn’t stand Luciano Becchio’s attitude and after catching him on the phone to his agent at Barnsley, he got rid. That’s page 343. On page 348, assessing his failure after getting the boot, Warnock moans that while Cardiff spent £10m, “I had to sell Snodgrass and Becchio … The final straw was losing Becchio. After Becchio went we scored 11 goals in 13 games.”
That’s the annoying thing about the book from a Leeds perspective: disliking Becchio, hating Tom Lees, and loving Michael Brown all became Colin-bashing cliches, but they’re all true. Tom Lees’s dressing down at Ipswich isn’t mentioned, but instead Warnock tells us about their first game together at Portsmouth. Lees sticks his hand in the air and is lucky not to give away a penalty. “I told him at the finish if we’d have lost the game because of it I’d have killed him. I laced into him,” continues Warnock, warming up, “Told him he’d never play for me again if he did it again and all that. All that effort we put in could have been wasted.” This is, remember, after Warnock’s first full game in charge, a week after meeting the players. “Full credit to the kid, he didn’t buckle,” finishes Neil, but how was he, a week in to the job, to know he wouldn’t?
Brownie, meanwhile… “I liked Brownie,” says Warnock, in Made in Sheffield. “He was my favourite [at Sheffield United]. I always have a favourite. Whoever it was, the lads called him my son. I would make a joke of it. If it was raining when I was doing a team talk, I’d take my brolly out and hold it over Brownie’s head and give him a piece of chewing gum.” The same story makes it into The Gaffer, adding that after Brown was gone Phil Jagielka became the son. “You have to pick the right player. They were good players, and popular, so everyone was OK with it.” There’s no mention of a ‘son’ at Leeds, but when Ross McCormack is angry about El Hadji Diouf not travelling to Ipswich, Warnock “called the senior players in, Lee Peltier, Stephen Warnock, Paddy and Brownie,” to discuss what to do with Ross.
It’s all, depressingly, exactly how we imagined it. With results that, for anyone but Warnock, were not hard to predict — he only needed to learn the lessons of his own book. When Dezza and Clint Hill are ready to throttle Taarabt at QPR, Warnock tells them, “They couldn’t afford to if they wanted to play in the Premier League.” The Championship won by Taarabt, Warnock then moans about being the only title-winning manager in the four divisions not to be voted manager of the year by the League Managers’ Association. “I would imagine everyone present at that awards dinner knew I should have won it, including Paul Lambert, and that was the main thing.” Page after page is spent outlining how Taarabt single-handedly promoted QPR, but then Warnock demands the plaudits for himself, heads to Leeds, and shows he has learned nothing about man-management by selling Becchio.
Perhaps Warnock just cared less because he knew the job of bringing glory to Leeds was bigger than the effort he was prepared to put in. He’d had to fight for spending money at QPR, but it was very much a case of getting his trusted footsoldiers in around Taarabt, who was already there. “As well as a trustworthy chairman, and either some decent players or the cash to change them, you want to go to a club with a chance of winning something,” says Warnock about the jobs he looks for. After QPR, “I didn’t want to go down the leagues, I’d had enough of fighting fires and picking teams up.” That was the attitude Warnock brought to Leeds. No wonder it didn’t work out.
I said at the start that Neil Warnock shows no sign that he has learned anything from a lifetime spent as Neil Warnock, but it’s not that the ability to learn isn’t there. Seeking a second career as a player, he qualified as a chiropodist, and built up a successful practice: diligent study, application and hard work paid off. But that’s feet. He had to work at learning about feet. Neil Warnock, however, thinks he knows everything about football already. On the very first page of The Gaffer, he complains about the “armchair experts,” who think they know better: “But they don’t.” But throughout that book and Made in Sheffield, Warnock is to the likes of Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson what the average “raggedy-arsed” radio caller is to Warnock.
At Sheffield United, Warnock’s status as lowest paid manager in the Premier League eats away at him; as far as he is concerned, that’s the only difference between him and the top managers. He yells along the corridor to his then assistant Kevin Blackwell about who to vote for as manager of the year. “‘Dario at Crewe,” Blackie said, ‘or Moyesey.’ David Moyes had had a great first full season at Everton. He was a top man as well. ‘Yeah, Moyesey,’ I said. ‘We’ll put Moyesey down.’” Come the dinner, Moyesey wins, with Warnock in second place. “Bloody typical. The nearest I ever came to a big accolade and I’d voted myself out of it.” Warnock’s generous vote had handed that award to David Moyes; just like when Warnock was at Notts County and Oldham won Division Two – “Nobody else would have beaten West Ham on that day. Joe Royle’s title was down to me, nobody else” – or when Sheffield United’s FA Cup performance tired Arsenal out so Ferguson’s team took the title – “I expected a medal from Fergie.” He didn’t get one, although Alex did watch the racing in Warnock’s office before a match one time.
“I know deep down Arsene Wenger respects somebody like me who has never had anything and has made the best out of what he’s got,” says Warnock. Arsene, Alex, Jose – they’re all on Warnock’s wavelength. It’s respect, thinks Neil. “Arsene knows his team is always in for a hard game when they play us,” he says. “We held out for sixty-five minutes that day. They beat us 3-0.” If only Neil Warnock had the breaks they had, he could be patronising second-rate managers too; the only difference between Warnock and his Premier League peer group was money. Trying to celebrate Sheffield United’s promotion, he can only find a takeaway open. “‘Wherever he is,’ I said to Sharon, ‘I bet Jose isn’t having a kebab tonight.’” At QPR, while his sick child gets in with Sharon, Warnock takes the kid’s bunk, and lies awake thinking, “I wonder if any other Premier League managers sleep in a bunk bed.” Arranging tickets for his family, he thinks, “I don’t suppose Alex Ferguson has this problem.” Talking about Mourinho again, Warnock says, “If I was in his situation, I’d act the way he does, too.” Two peas in a pod, Neil and Jose. According to one of them, anyway.
The paranoia and the inferiority complexes are all present and correct throughout these two books, to the almost total exclusion of one important element of football: the fans. “The most important person in a football club is the manager and the most important relationship is that between him and the chairman,” states Neil at the start of The Gaffer. From Howard Wilkinson you might call this pragmatism. With Warnock it’s pure ego. Telling how Andy Booth’s mum once ran on the pitch at Huddersfield when her son was injured, Warnock describes her job at the club as doing “the teas or the cleaning or something.” The first line of The Gaffer starts: “The Eagles, my Eagles, were literally flying.” His Eagles. Referee Graham Poll, “didn’t seem to give a toss about Neil Warnock and Sheffield United.” Players don’t play for clubs: they play “for me.” His own example of how “grounded” and ordinary he is, is the time the manager of WHSmith’s didn’t recognise him when he complained about his book not being on sale.
What motivated Warnock “wasn’t money, it was proving people wrong,” and after a lifetime in the game, there are a lot of people Warnock wants to prove things to. Football supporters come a long way down the list. On the few occasions they’re mentioned as an ingredient of a game or a season, it always loops back to Warnock anyway: after Sheffield United beat Middlesbrough, “I thought about all those fans going home that night and feeling the same way I felt. I went back to my childhood, thought about getting off the bus with my dad, up to the stadium…” That single memory crops up again and again, obliterating the rich variety of fan experience behind one fan’s experience, the only fan’s experience that matters to Neil: his own.
The acknowledgements that start The Gaffer list all the different types of people who have helped make management a less “lonely job”: assistant managers, chairmen good and bad, some good-guy journalists, and “Last, but certainly not least, thanks to the players.” Three hundred pages later Warnock does says some complimentary things about Leeds fans, but it’s not because we’re an integral part of the game: it’s because we chanted Warnock’s name when 7-3 down against Forest (what were we thinking?). It becomes almost eerie how absent the fans are from Neil Warnock’s football world, as if he’d have preferred the games he managed to be played behind closed doors. You expect managers and players to be concentrated on the inside of the game, but that every now and then, they might look around them. Warnock is on the inside, looking at himself.
Most fans aren’t daft, says Neil in his introduction to The Gaffer: they “can see when a team is struggling and some can work out why.” But, “there are a lot of things going on at football clubs most of which, for all sorts of reasons, the fans don’t hear about.” The Gaffer, and Made in Sheffield, are Warnock’s attempts to tell us mere mortals about some of those things, but instead they come off as long winded ways of saying it’s none of our business. You don’t know what it was like, coming from Gainsborough Trinity to become the lowest paid manager in the Premier League, and all these books will tell you is that you can’t know what it was like.
Experience for Neil Warnock isn’t something to be shared and communicated; it’s something he’s got and you haven’t. Reminiscing on his 1,250 matches in the epilogue to The Gaffer, Warnock says, “I gained wonderful memories you can’t buy which I’ll never forget.” You can’t buy them. He’ll never forget them. You can buy his books. I wouldn’t bother.
This was originally publishing in The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 01, but with Warnock’s rising this weekend, a warning from history felt utterly necessary.