Neil Warnock Week: Sheffield United's 'Bladey Bladeness'
By his own admission Neil Warnock is one of football’s most divisive characters. Loved by as many as he is hated by. Often within the fan-base of the club he is managing. That is no different at the club he supports and has managed.
He took over with the club reaching the lowest nadir in its recent history. Less than 10,000 fans were in Bramall Lane to watch Adrian Heath’s short, but hugely unsuccessful tenure come to an end, in tedious, depressing and soul destroying fashion. Having arrived under the banner ” ‘Inch- ing Forward United” there had been only backward momentum, and at a rapid rate. United were 23rd and had just 4 wins from 19 games.
Despite his professed support for the Blades, scarf waving and stories of being passed over the heads of supporters on the Kop as child, many fans were not won over by what I once heard brilliantly described as his “Bladey Bladeness”. Many thought his best days were past and he wasn’t the inspirational “name” manager that many thought was needed in such dire circumstances.
Picking the manager of mid-table Bury from the division below, a team who had won just one more game than United that season, seemed dull and potentially risky. What Bury were was a team that was hard to beat, drawing a majority of their games, and that fortitude is what Warnock brought to Bramall Lane. Warnock got just 9 more wins for United that season, but 15 draws over the season saw The Blades finished 16th; 8 points above the relegation places. The following two seasons saw United finish 10th and 13th, with the only memorable moment being the infamous Battle of Bramall Lane, an indelible moment for all the wrong reasons.
United were steady, solid, and stodgy. The ship was steady but not ready to launch. On the plus side there were signs of the next generation being developed by Warnock, as Nick Montgomery, Michael Tonge and Phil Jagielka started to make a bright impression around the first team. Then the club had a remarkable season. The triple assault on promotion to the Premier League and both cups saw some memorable games as United dumped Premier League teams out of the cups, where club and fans were lifted by the big occasion. United narrowly lost the cup semi-finals to Liverpool and Arsenal and when third place was secured, United failed to turn up in Cardiff as Wolves turned us over with ease
The next two seasons saw United miss out on the Play-Offs. The final game of the 2004-5 season saw the Play-Offs out of reach, United having won just one of their previous five games. United lost at home to Millwall and finished the game with Chris Morgan up front, Phil Jagielka in central midfield and Andy Gray in central defence. The spine of the team, disassembled and thrown back together with the manager’s eyes closed. You could legitimately question his thinking, his ideas and how he would take the club forward. Many did, me included, at the end of the match during the team’s “lap of honour”.
Warnock speaks of the abusive minority who decided to go out and face that day as if that was it a representative group of his denigrators, but it wasn’t. But that suits his version of events. That suits his positioning as the persecuted and not a failure.
Yet the United board stood by him, extending his length of tenure to one rarely afforded to managers in modern football, not least at Bramall Lane. Warnock repaid them not long after in awful fashion.
In 2005-6 with the Blades having made a good start to the season, he entered contract negotiations to leave his “beloved Blades” and join Portsmouth, all whilst preparing for a Sheffield Derby. He eventually stayed and the following May saw him lead the Blades back to the top tier, on the face of it a superb achievement but one that might never have happened had he taken the Fratton Park money.
The worst example though was his bleating to the press about his contract situation on the morning of the final game of the Premier League season against Wigan Athletic. The club seemingly taking advantage of his supporter status by paying him less than any other top tier manager. All the while conveniently forgetting the time and support he had been given (and taken) in order to get the club to the Premier League. At the same time, losing focus from the important task in hand; a task that was failed in devastating fashion on a grey and wet afternoon in Sheffield.
Neil always used to play on the fact that he was a Blade and how much he loved the club. This becomes something the fans cling to, some still do sadly. He says all the right thing, yet you soon realise, that like some ageing lothario he says the same things to all the girls. As Blades fans were once the best fans and Kevin McCabe the best chairman, it soon became Palace supporters and Simon Jordan. Then it was QPR’s supporters, then Leeds…..
The thing that ultimately grates with Neil is that when things are good he wants all the credit. When things start going sour, it is never his fault. As things start to deteriorate, he flails about like a fish out of water, with accusations and blame cast to all and sundry. Neil the blameless, Neil the persecuted, Neil the misunderstood. The ensuing media attention masking both his and the team’s failings, whilst embarrassing the fans who watch and know the truth who have watched week in, week out.
When Warnock managed Sheffield United in that Premier League season, it was his tactics away from home that proved costly. Performances highlighting his limitations, once teams have sussed out his team and tactics. The penultimate game away against an average Villa side being a game that most fans point to. Odd team selection, a regular Warnock fault, negative tactics and on the back foot throughout a 3-0 defeat. Those goals conceded were to prove costly. As much as fans and Warnock point to the Tevez scandal and to general bad luck, this was one of numerous times Warnock got it wrong – not that he would ever admit to it.
When Warnock was given significant amounts of money to spend he failed to use it wisely and it had limited impact. It is a popular misconception, one that Warnock was happy to enhance given his “poor me, look at what a tough hand I’ve been dealt” demeanour, that Kevin McCabe failed to back Warnock in the transfer market. Maybe he didn’t provide funds to the extent of other clubs, and perhaps more critically still the type of funds he wasted on Bryan Robson’s tenure that followed, but most of the time Warnock was given significant money to spend it was wasted. Claude Davis, Geoff Horsfield, Luton Shelton, Ade Akinbiyi; just some headline names who had limited games in red and white striped shirts after a million pound plus fee.
In January 2006, the Blades sat 15th in the Premier League with 23 points from 21 games and 5 points clear of the relegation zone and Warnock spunked his January war-chest on players who had little involvement or impact in the following months. It is worth noting that, amongst all the factors to be blamed for the Blades’ subsequent relegation in the pages of his autobiography “Made in Sheffield”, no mention is made of his transfer activity that January. In fact the only way you would know these players had arrived was from his complaints about the stonewall penalty claim that Luton Shelton had at Old Trafford towards the end of the season. A convenient re-write of history and demonstrating the man’s inability to admit he does get it wrong.
Many Blades fans would agree, he was the wrong man to manage us in the Premier League however, once he had remained in situ, he was the right man to get us back there post relegation. He was never given that chance and now too many bridges have been burned, both with elements of the support, but also co-owner Kevin McCabe. You see, it was okay for Warnock to seek out new opportunities, but not okay for his hand to be forced with a sacking.
In discussing that period following the Wigan game, he has made comments about Blades fans that exemplify his predilection for exaggeration, to tell “a good story” and to paint detractors as negatively as possible. Describing his thoughts at the time he said;
“If we lost a couple of games early doors next season, there’d be fans outside the ground, throwing bricks at the windows.”
“Look at that bad period Steve Bruce had at Birmingham the season they were back in the Championship. They went for five games without a win some time in September and October. If that happens at Bramall Lane, they’ll be setting cars afire.”
That’s his own club’s fans he’s referring to. Fans he claims to be one of. Fans who have never thrown bricks through windows. Fans who have never set cars afire. Thanks for that Neil. Maybe you think you were worthy of such extremes of behaviour?
I do have respect for a lot of what Warnock achieved has achieved in his career, but really once is enough. He gave me 3 memorable seasons, including two cup semi-finals and the club’s last Premier League season; but it is of a time and moment long gone. His time and moment is gone.
Every so often, as another manager spins out of the revolving door on the Bramall Lane manager’s office, Neil name is touted by many as the solution to our woes. In recent weeks, as Nigel Clough’s team has flattered to deceive, the cries of “Warnock will sort it out” can be heard from his small but vociferous supporters. Not for me.
I want someone who is going to be accountable. One who will take the flak, as well as any glory. The only thing Neil Warnock is focused on is himself and, although that should benefit often to the detriment of the club he manages. He was given more time than any other manager would have had in the circumstances and in the modern football world I doubt any manager will in the future.
In checking on match dates and facts for this post I re-read the introduction to his autobiography. In it he says; “Love me or loathe me, I’ve always been the type of bloke people have had an opinion about.” And then I had a thought. This series of articles will give him the attention he craves and then, on that basis, a little bit of me wished I had left this page blank and written nothing at all.