Neil Warnock Week: Book Review: Made in Sheffield
Made in Sheffield: My Story by Neil Warnock with Oliver Holt
Published by Hodder and Stoughton
“Anyone who writes an autobiography”, opines former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine in the introduction to her brilliant memoir Clothes Music Boys, “is either a twat or broke.” Made in Sheffield: My Story bears out her theory. While not short of a bob or two (despite being aggrieved at having never gained the “big job” or bumper pay packet he feels he’s deserved), Neil Warnock most certainly is a twat – an embittered, tantrum-throwing prick of Premier League proportions. It’s amazing to think he managed to find a journalist who could stomach spending sufficient time in his company to gather information and ghostwrite the book (former Daily Mirror and current Mail on Sunday scribe Oliver Holt), let alone not one but two women willing to contract themselves to him for life in unholy matrimony.
However, it comes as no surprise that the introduction to Warnock’s own memoir contains nothing remotely comparable to Albertine’s candid admission. For it to do so would require its subject to possess a modicum of self-awareness. Instead, his introduction serves as a perfect précis of what is to come: much whining and carping, a smattering of petty resentments and an unshakeable self-belief – a trait that, in anyone else, would be admirable.
But before I delve headlong into all that, let’s start with two reasons – underlined in Made in Sheffield – for which Warnock deserves extremely grudging respect.
First, his record of dragging unfashionable clubs up a division by their bootstraps, without significant financial backing and against the odds, is undeniably impressive. He had presided over no fewer than six promotions at the time of writing (2008) – now seven, with QPR’s return to the top flight three years later. On four separate occasions he’s successfully guided teams through the play-offs, including taking Notts County – a side he admits were limited in ability and not unfairly described as long-ball merchants (“It was because we couldn’t pass water”) – from the third tier to the first in consecutive seasons. When he steered Scarborough into the Football League as Conference winners in 1987, they had been 50-1 outsiders.
Second, despite the gargantuan size of his ego, Warnock has nevertheless steadfastly refused to see any job as being beneath him, even if his motivation in taking it has usually been the burning desire to prove people wrong rather than anything more honourable or altruistic. After being sacked by Notts County in 1993, he went down (literally and metaphorically) to Torquay, a move described as “professional suicide” by horrified friends: “They asked me to think about the damage it would do to my reputation if I went from being the boss of a top-flight side one year to presiding over a team that lost its league status the next.” The clubs he’s managed haven’t exactly boasted state-of-the-art facilities; at Scarborough, for instance, evening training sessions were often conducted by the light of players’ car headlamps, while at Bury (a second-tier team at the time, as he takes pains to point out), his charges regularly had to contend with a dogshit-strewn training pitch.
As Warnock himself admits, his various managerial tenures have mostly followed a similar trajectory, whereby a once-healthy and amicable relationship with the chairman sours. In his defence (albeit on his word), some of those for whom he’s worked have been difficult or harboured unreasonable expectations. Take Geoffrey Richmond at Scarborough, for example, who insisted Warnock should try to recruit internationals Bernie Slaven and Colin Clarke, “players we hadn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of signing”. Or Derek Pavis at Notts County, whose penny-pinching measures saw a top-flight side not only not staying overnight before away games but also having to scoff their pre-match meal on the coach en route. Or Dan Macaulay at Plymouth, who threatened to sue his own players if they didn’t return their shirts to the club following the 1996 play-off final win over Darlington.
Nevertheless, the common factor in all of the relationship breakdowns is of course Warnock himself, who also details his fallings-out with some of those closest to him in the world of football – most notably, Mick Jones (for choosing to stay behind at Plymouth when Warnock was sacked and subsequently took up the reins at Oldham) and Kevin Blackwell (for the manner of his move from Sheffield United to Leeds). In both cases the feeling of betrayal clearly rankled, and even if Warnock’s claim to be back on good terms with Jones, “Blackie” and many (if certainly not all) of those with whom he’s clashed is genuine, you do wonder whether the book’s publication may have changed all that.
Much of Made in Sheffield is understandably devoted to Warnock’s eight-year stewardship of his beloved Sheffield United, the longest stint of his managerial career, and his relationship with chairman Kevin McCabe was entirely typical – starting well but ending amidst bitterness and recrimination. McCabe is branded “disrespectful” for refusing to offer the financial rewards Warnock felt were commensurate with what he achieved during his tenure, and is accused of “abusing the fact that I loved the club so much and didn’t want to leave”. In the wake of Warnock’s resignation following relegation in 2007 (of which more to come), McCabe incensed his former manager by suggesting in a radio interview that he “‘is a great motivator but we can reflect now maybe he wasn’t quite right for our Premiership ambitions’”. Coming from the chairman of his boyhood heroes, this barbed comment must have smarted more than most.
Warnock’s passion for Sheffield United as opposed to cross-city rivals Wednesday stems from a perennial identification with the underdog. Portraying himself in the book’s dedication as his parents’ “little black sheep”, he implies that this identification is a deep-seated response to a troubled childhood: a mother who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when pregnant with him and who subsequently died prematurely; a father who worked hard to provide for the family but who found it hard to show affection; an impoverished upbringing that saw him having to share a bed with a sibling, albeit in a house whose garden contained an orchard.
Perhaps it’s uncharitable of me, but I found it impossible to read that early misery memoir section of the book – and, indeed, all that followed – without mentally cross-referring to Alan Partridge’s autobiography I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan. Made in Sheffield might just as well be entitled Bouncing Back; though Warnock has never (to my knowledge) driven to Dundee in his bare feet while stuffing himself with Toblerone, he does note with self-satisfaction that “I’ve made a habit of picking myself up when I’ve been knocked down” and on numerous occasions sounds so like Partridge that you’re tempted to double-check the identity of the ghostwriter.
Let’s examine the evidence:
- I can easily imagine Alan describing someone as being “bald as a badger”, beginning a paragraph with the phrase “I had had my vasectomy reversed”, informing his readers that “I always like to see a wedding before a game because it’s lucky to see a bride”, or claiming that one of his speeches “brought the house down” (as Warnock does of comments made about Graham Poll and Rob Styles at an LMA awards dinner).
- Alan would de-stress by getting “a flask of coffee and a Bakewell Tart”, driving to Chatsworth, parking up in sight of the red deer and catching a couple of hours’ kip in his car.
- The statement “I hate traffic. It’s the one thing I hate … I hate being still and not being in control of how quickly I can get somewhere” would receive a vigorous (if muffled) round of applause from Alan’s driving-gloved hands.
- It is probably also one of Alan’s lifetime ambitions to see Barbra Streisand at Madison Square Gardens (an ambition that an international break afforded Warnock the opportunity to fulfil).
- No doubt if Alan was struck in the face by a shirtless pitch-invading “yobbo” subsequently poleaxed by a minder, he would say something like “‘Get in there, my son’” to the minder in question.
- The man who once impaled his foot on a spike trying to gain access to Choristers Country Club would be sympathetic to the young Burton manager who, seeking to express his post-match fury in the dressing room, accidentally punted a cast-iron bootscraper as hard as he could.
- The way Warnock talks casually of players “pulling birds” and chuckles while recalling the sort of hilarious dressing-room “banter” that involved Rob Kozluk (“a great lad”) filling his teammates’ boots with yoghurt is reminiscent of Alan’s cringeworthy attempts to ingratiate himself with the blokey production crew working on the Hamilton’s Water Breaks advert.
- If he was ever a manager looking to celebrate his side’s promotion to the Premier League, Alan would probably be turned down for a table at his local pub and have to make do with a kebab.
- Alan would admit: “I was a philatelist, too. I used to think that was a dirty old man until I realised it was stamp collecting. I collected first day covers. Still do, actually. I love stamps.”
I mean, I could go on, as another (less celebrated) Steve Coogan character says.
However, in nothing is Warnock more Partridge-esque than in his harbouring of grudges and his apparent determination to use his autobiography to settle scores and pour vitriol and scorn on those who’ve crossed him during his managerial career. Several of those with whom he’s had run-ins – former Leeds assistant and current Newcastle caretaker John Carver; Steve Coppell’s number two at Reading, Wally Downes; Gerard Houllier’s sidekick and now Sky pundit Phil Thompson – aroused his ire for their ranting and raving antics on the touchline. It’s a measure of Warnock’s complete lack of self-awareness that he never really acknowledges this as his own most notorious trait.
None of the above would rank on his personal three-man shitlist, though; no, his arch nemeses are Stan Ternent, Gary Megson and Arthur Cox. Ternent’s initial crime was being Warnock’s predecessor at Bury and subsequently trying to slyly poach all his best players for new club Burnley, and later for a behind-the-scenes bust-up with Warnock’s assistant Kevin Blackwell. Megson, for his part, particularly infuriated Warnock in the aftermath of the infamous Sheffield Utd v West Brom match that became known as the Battle of Bramall Lane (appraised in this very series yesterday.) When Warnock declares bluntly, “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire”, you can imagine Partridge saying exactly the same thing about Steven McCombe or Tony Hayers. Warnock gleefully recalls offloading defender Danny Cullip, branded a mouthy misfit, to Megson’s Nottingham Forest as though it was the sweetest retribution.
Similarly, after Cox crossed Warnock over a player during the latter’s stint at Scarborough, Warnock allowed the grudge to fester until he got the opportunity, years later, to exact revenge. When Cox started pursuing Notts County defender Craig Short, Warnock pushed the price up to £2.6 million out of pure spite – meaning that Cox’s club Derby County, he estimates, were overcharged by around £1.5 million. “If you screw people”, he notes with satisfaction, “they’ll screw you back.” All that’s missing from the end of the anecdote is “Needless to say, I had the last laugh”…
So much for those in the opposing dugouts – what of the men in the middle? Warnock’s haranguing of referees is legendary, and it’s hardly a surprise that he devotes a whole chapter to them. Given that he’s a qualified referee (as well as, more surprisingly, a qualified chiropodist), you’d think he might be sympathetic to the difficulties of the job. You’d especially think that if you knew the boot was once very much on the other foot; answering an emergency call to run the line for a match between “the Seychelles and the Republic of Somewhere or Other” while on holiday, Warnock refused to rule out a goal for offside and at the final whistle found himself chased off the pitch by infuriated players baying for blood. But no – he seems to think his qualification gives him the right to query decisions and heap pressure and abuse upon the officials, while also parroting that tedious managerial refrain that referees simply don’t understand “because they have never played the game”.
Warnock takes the opportunity to pass swift and dismissive judgement on a number of referees. Steve Bennett is characterised as an emotionless automaton operating rigidly according to the letter of the law, while Rob Styles’ integrity is questioned when Warnock ventures that he “hasn’t quite got the courage” to give decisions “against the big teams”. Most of his opprobrium is, however, reserved for Graham Poll, largely for what happened during the 2003 FA Cup semi-final. Poll not only allowed an Arsenal goal to stand when a Sheffield Utd player was prostrate injured, but also had the temerity to come off the pitch grinning and subsequently admit he’d been enjoying the occasion. Warnock claims not to have been “gleeful” or to have gloated when Poll suffered the ignominy of issuing three yellow cards to Croatia’s Josip Šimunić in the 2006 World Cup, but can’t keep his Schadenfreude at bay for long: “part of me was glad it had happened to him.”
During the passages about that FA Cup semi-final, Warnock says of Poll that there wasn’t “a chance of him beginning to think he might have made a mess of things”. This is a particularly rich irony, one that clearly sails high over Warnock’s head; over the course of its 350-odd pages, Made in Sheffield contains precious few admissions of error. Blink and you’ll miss them. He accepts that working too hard impacted on his family life and contributed to the breakdown of his first marriage; expresses regret over his team selection for Sheffield Utd’s 2003 play-off final against Wolves; concedes that the signings of Ade Akinbiyi and Geoff Horsfield for the Blades were a mistake; and rues not setting his side up to play more conservatively against Villa in the penultimate game of the 2006–7 season. And that’s about it.
Warnock’s repeated refusal to accept blame is staggering. He remains aggrieved at the fact that Bury were relegated on the grounds that they had scored fewer goals than the club with whom they were tied on points, at a time when that and not goal difference was the crucial determinant. Indeed, he even denies all responsibility for Oldham’s demotion under his stewardship: “I don’t class that as a relegation against my name really because, effectively, they were already down when I arrived.” Some would say that three months should be sufficient time for someone of Warnock’s supposed calibre to turn things around.
Of course, for Warnock to accept blame would be to contradict his whole me-against-the-world schtick. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that he thrives on injustice; it’s what motivates and inspires him, and what he uses to spur on his teams and to create a siege mentality at his clubs. In that respect, he’s similar to – if not half as cunning as – a rather more celebrated manager for whom he expresses a degree of admiration, Jose Mourinho.
Warnock remembers Sheffield Utd’s fateful 2006–7 season as a litany of injustices from first whistle to last. In their opening fixture against Liverpool, Alan Wiley failed to send off Chris Kirkland for handling outside his area, and that set the pattern for the year to come. Along the way, Warnock points the finger of blame at: Gareth Southgate, Rafa Benítez and Alex Ferguson, for all playing weakened teams in their respective clubs’ matches against United’s relegation rivals; the officials who allowed West Ham to win at Blackburn with a “goal” that didn’t cross the line; Times journalist Pete Lansley, for upsetting goalkeeper Paddy Kenny by asking about his troubled personal life in an interview; the FA (“rank amateurs”), for not punishing West Ham for fielding two ineligible players, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano; and finally David Unsworth, for contriving a costly penalty miss for United against Blackburn midway through the season but then scoring from the spot at Bramall Lane for Wigan in the game that sent the Blades down at the Latics’ expense. Most if not all of the above are legitimate grievances, but Warnock’s manner and tone mean that the reader’s sympathy is not forthcoming and he’s left looking like a boggle-eyed foaming-at-the-mouth conspiracy theorist ranting on a street corner.
In the dressing room after that defeat to Wigan, Warnock told the players that “‘It’s not been West Ham or Wigan or any of the other teams that have cost us. It’s been us’”. Even then, though, note that he was unable to resist shirking personal culpability by using the first person plural pronoun: “us”. It’s all the more remarkable given how happy he is to take sole credit elsewhere. He portrays himself as the not-so-secret secret of many of his former clubs’ success, venturing (for instance) that Notts County will never again reach the same heights. He even tries to take credit for the achievements of others; Oldham won Division Two in 1991 due to Notts County beating Oldham’s rivals West Ham despite having nothing but pride to play for, and he claims manager Joe Royle’s “title was down to me, nobody else, and I have told him a few times since”. Were the book written by anyone else, you’d imagine this would be a joke, but with Warnock you get the impression he really does believe it. And so to another rich irony: his theory that his relationships with chairmen have often disintegrated because they grow jealous of him, wanting greater credit for themselves and feeling resentful of being overshadowed and outshone by one of their employees.
While Warnock is admittedly prepared to accept his limitations as a player, he has an extremely high opinion of his managerial abilities, bugged by seeing “other managers getting top jobs” when “I know they’re not as good as me” – so, you presume, he must be aggrieved at finding himself unemployed. Made in Sheffield takes Warnock’s story up to the summer of 2008 and the end of his first year at Crystal Palace; nearly seven years on and he’s out of work, a second stint at Selhurst Park having come to an abrupt conclusion in December. Asked how he was adjusting to unemployment shortly after Steve Parish’s axe fell, he put a very Partridge-esque brave face on it: “I’ve watched seven episodes of Downton Abbey in the last few days – you miss out on things like that… things are not all doom and gloom.”
One wonders now whether the 66-year-old will get more work of any kind, let alone the “big job” he craves. In his general opinions, Warnock comes across as the sort of miserable Daily Mail-reading pensioner you might have the misfortune to encounter at a bus stop, moaning tediously about “the way society is going” (“I don’t think everything is better [nowadays]”), alluding to “the wife” and “my missus”, and claiming that getting a good clip round the ear from the local bobby as a child “stood me in good stead”.
In footballing terms, too, Warnock is without a doubt an old-school dinosaur and a relic of a bygone age. A fervent advocate of “getting stuck in”, he boasts of playing on for Hartlepool despite having suffered a cracked ankle and ruptured spleen, and refers to the Battle of Bramall Lane – a game in which three Sheffield United players were sent off and a fourth received a retrospective ban for throwing punches, lest we forget – as merely “a lively game”. Upon taking over at a new club, the first thing he likes to see is players steaming into each other in training, and he claims that Paul Devlin headbutting Blades teammate Marcus Bent was “brilliant” and good for morale. Warnock’s most prized players are those who work their proverbial socks off and know their roles – and are almost invariably British. He distrusted Australian Shaun Murphy for being a “fancy Dan” with ideas above his station and wanting to play football when centre backs should just “head it and fucking kick it”, and argues that Sheffield Wednesday’s relegation in 2000 was a “good lesson” of the perils of replacing “a core of English lads” with “loads of foreigners”. This is not a man who you imagine has much truck with tacticians, statistical analysts, nutritionists and sports psychologists.
Which brings us back to Kevin McCabe’s assessment. Warnock may indeed be “a great motivator”, but that’s no longer enough in the modern game, especially at Premier League level. I suspect that this season’s assignment holding the fort at Palace may well be his last in football, and, free from distractions, he can now look forward to retirement and watching Downton Abbey to his heart’s content.