Neil Warnock Week: The Argyle Years
Despite managing the Pilgrims for less than 100 games back in the nineties, Neil Warnock remains a firm favourite amongst Plymouth Argyle supporters today — so much so that his name continues to surface every time the team goes on a bad run of form. ‘Warnock would sort this mess out’, so goes the mantra.
At points, a return wouldn’t have been out of the question — not least during the Pilgrims’ six season spell in the Championship between 2004-10 — but to the disappointment of many fans Warnock’s and Argyle’s fortunes have never quite aligned since his untimely departure in 1997.
To be frank, though, it was anything but the stars that brought the two parties together back in the summer of 1995: Warnock was wooed to Plymouth by the budget (and most likely the salary) that then Argyle chairman Dan McCauley had to offer. With the club having suffered relegations from Division One to Division Three under his watch, McCauley was prepared to back his man to get the Pilgrims back up the leagues. Having just led Huddersfield to victory in the Division Two play-off final, Warnock seemed an unlikely candidate for the job but, knowing that his relationship with the Town board was broken, McCauley swooped to lure him to the South West ahead of the 1995-96 season.
An outstanding campaign followed and — courtesy of a play-off final victory against Darlington at Wembley — Argyle gained promotion back to Division Two at the first time of asking. Given the resources that he was able to draw on — Adrian Littlejohn, Chris Billy, Mick Heathcote, Ronnie Mauge and Paul Williams, amongst others, were signed for relatively big transfer fees — Warnock’s success didn’t come as a big surprise. As opposition managers were quick to point out throughout that season, many of the team should have really been playing at a higher level.
So why, if Argyle’s promotion was a dead rubber, does Warnock’s reputation endure around these parts almost 20 years on? How is it that he is so revered, despite spending less than two full seasons at Home Park?
To begin to answer this it’s worth comparing Warnock on a few counts with John Sheridan, Argyle’s current — and not especially popular — manager. On the one hand, they’re rather alike. Neither are from the South West nor had ties with the club before taking charge and both — at the time of writing, at least — have managed Argyle with a not dissimilar level of success in the Football League’s basement division.
Yet, in other ways, they are absolutely streets apart. Perhaps most significantly, Warnock was — and still is — all over the media, using the various avenues of communication open to him to his best advantage, for example by extolling the virtues of Plymouth and its surrounding areas and building up the club’s ‘potential’ both during his time at Argyle and at various points since. On the other hand, fans rarely hear a peep from Sheridan aside from his generally bland previews and reviews of matches for Argyle’s in-house media staff.
So, while Sheridan gets hammered when the chips are down for being a dour northerner who hasn’t even bothered to move down to the region from his base in Leeds, Pilgrims supporters still go weak at the knees whenever Warnock ushers the words ‘Plymouth’ and / or ‘Argyle’ in the same sentence.
That said, if Argyle fans have been taken in by Warnock’s pied piper act over the years then there are justifiable grounds. On joining the club, he inherited an absolute mess with the dressing room split into various factions and star players wanting away — a fog had set in around the time of Argyle’s defeat to Burnley in the Division Two play-offs two seasons earlier that Warnock worked wonders to lift in such a short period.
He also set the wheels in motion for a couple of longer-term innovations that would reap rewards in the years that followed his tenure, fronting the plans for a new stadium which — although infamously mothballed — led in part in the development of three sides of Home Park a few years later. Moreover, he rallied behind supporters’ plans to form Plymouth Argyle Youth Development and the charity Plymouth Argyle Supporters’ Training and Development Trust, which played a crucial part in supplying several of the players that were instrumental to Paul Sturrock’s promotion teams in the early 2000s (and one in Luke McCormick who continues to play for Argyle to this day).
In short, unlike a certain Ian Holloway who played a comparable card a decade or so on, there was some depth to his self-styled talisman role.
So where did it all go wrong? Why was the love-in brought to such a premature end?
As other articles in this series have brought to bear, there’s been a familiar trajectory to the majority of Warnock’s managerial spells in that — after an initial period of grace — his reign at each club has been brought to a messy end by way of a fall out with its owner / chairman. His time at Argyle was no different. In his own words: ‘Dan McCauley at Plymouth is another I fell out with but made up with later on. He became envious of the publicity I received when we won promotion […] he felt he deserved more credit as he had bought the players, but the fact is the media want to talk to the manager, not the owner, especially back then. He turned the money tap off, I aired my grievance in the media and […] there is only one winner when that happens. By the end we only communicated by fax and I found out he had sacked me from a third party.’
This is, of course, anything but an impartial account of what happened and Warnock wasn’t without blame for his contribution to the impasse. But the irascible and unpopular McCauley would have without doubt been almost impossible to work under for any length of time and it was — and still remains — no surprise that things ended the way they did. However, perhaps unlike some of Warnock’s other blow-ups with his paymasters, such as at Sheffield United, he came off better this time around to the extent that for many supporters he remains one of Argyle’s best managers in living memory.
At 66 years of age and having previously suggested that he’s now done his time, at least as a manager, a dramatic return to Home Park seems improbable. However, given his ties with the area (he still has a house in East Cornwall) and his unquenchable thirst for the limelight it’s perhaps not completely implausible, especially when one considers John Sheridan’s tinderbox relationship with the club’s fanbase.
Whether supporters would truly welcome him back is open to discussion. As Warnock has himself suggested, he’s now become the kind of unfashionable manager that wouldn’t have a place in a forward-thinking club, even in the Football League’s basement division. Moreover, there’s an overriding worry — at least for this correspondent — that his return would only come about in a scenario where he would work in a director of football-type capacity alongside a young head coach (of the Paul Wotton variety as opposed to the Mauricio Pochettino one) in what would inevitably end up being two-bit take on the continental model.
So, while it’s easy to suggest that Warnock would do a good job sorting someone’s mess out in the short-term, the game has simply moved on too far for his appointment to be anything other than either a sticking plaster or a risky experiment — it would be far better to leave his reputation amongst Argyle supporters unsullied, as Paul Sturrock is able to attest.