Sheffield United: Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock talks five decades in management ahead of clash

Some things are guaranteed in football; overpriced food in stadiums, disappointment and the sight of a tracksuited Neil Warnock berating officials from the touchline in his role of pantomime villain.

Sunday, 26th September 2021, 5:00 pm

The 72-year-old is six years past the UK retirement age and no doubt has enough reserves to enjoy a slower pace of life, free of the dugout’s stresses, at home in Cornwall with his wife Sharon.

That certainly sounds more appealing than evening’s spent cooking up a simple dinner of pasta in his Darlington flat, close to current club Middlesbrough’s training ground.

Yet, 14 years after he left Sheffield United following their 2007 Premier League relegation, Warnock is preparing to take on his former employers with Boro – the sixteenth side he’s managed.

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Neil Warnock of Sheffield United celebrates a Premier League win against Watford at Bramall Lane in 2007 (photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images).

So what keeps him going?

“I like proving people wrong," he told The Star.

“I like making fans happy. I love putting smiles on faces and I like going to away grounds when the fans are in and getting on your back - it motivates me to get my lads going.

“I just want to be the best with the group of players I have got."

Dean Sturridge is welcomed to United by Neil Warnock

Like the Blades, Middlesbrough have endured a mixed start this season and occupy a mid-table spot despite their play-off ambitions.

Warnock is desperate for a ninth career promotion in what could be his final season in management, if you believe that.

Retirement was an idea first floated for the end of the 2005-06 season, but how could he resist leading his boyhood club in the top flight?

Unsurprisingly, promotion is his best memory from the eight years he spent at Bramall Lane.

"The day we got promoted was unbelievable really,” he remembered, with one recollection in particular still standing out.

“I remember trying to book a restaurant where we live and we couldn't find one so I ended up in a kebab shop in Callington.”

Last month Warnock was presented with the Derek Dooley Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 Star Football Awards in recognition of his services to the game.

A 12-year professional playing career began with Chesterfield the year after England won the World Cup and also included spells with Barnsley and Rotherham, who he would later lead to Championship safety against the odds during a management career that has so far stretched more than 1,500 games.

While far from everyone’s cup of Yorkshire Tea, Sheffield-born Warnock is fondly remembered by many of his former players – and he’s taken a shine to one or two of them.

They include Rob Kozluk, who was signed by Steve Bruce but kept on by Warnock for the entirety of his spell in charge.

The former defender was the class clown under his old boss and now has the unenviable task of heading up Derby County’s recruitment.

“With Kozzy (Kozluk), he joined the dressing room,” Warnock, who is still in touch with him, said.

"He kept spirits high when things weren't right.

"Every time you came in in the morning and saw Kozzy, you smiled.”

Another player remembered fondly is Carl Asaba, who spent three seasons at the club from 2000 to 2003.

He teamed up with Kozluck once again to present Warnock with his award at the ceremony at the Double Tree by Hilton in Sheffield.

“Carl thought a lot about the game and wasn't as open but soon came into his own after about six months,” added Warnock.

As documentaries, former players and his unrivalled promotion record will attest, the EFL’s most colourful character knows how to motivate his players.

But who is in his corner providing counsel, and how does a manger stay relevant for five decades in such a shifting and trigger-happy climate?

“Nobody really. I think about my dad a lot, he passed away many years ago. If I want to speak to my brother (John, 78), I speak to him and Sharon, my wife.

“She's very, very good because football isn't her life. I couldn't do anything without Sharon really.

"The times when you are down, because you get down on bad games, if you haven't got your family around you it's very difficult to motivate yourself.

“You have to change with the times, I have changed two, three, four times. You have got to.”

On that last point, he acknowledges the modernising influence Arsène Wenger had on English football.

The John Neil speaks of is Sheffield United’s former academy director and head of youth development, who agreed to sign a 12-year-old Billy Sharp from neighbours Rotherham for a mere £5,000.

He still lives in Sheffield and no doubt will be watching with interest on Tuesday.

But he’s sitting on the fence with his prediction.

“I would like the best team to win on the day,” John diplomatically told The Star.

"I usually go for a draw.

“Sheffield United are going through a big change. I want the dust to settle before I can reassess the club.

"I have been to see Middlesbrough and enjoyed watching them play.”

Unsurprisingly, Neil doesn’t see eye to eye with some of his opposite numbers.

But Sheffield United’s latest incumbent, two-time Premier League promotion-winner Slavisa Jokanovic, has been given the seal of approval.

“We have had some great games against him,” he said.

"He likes to play football and he likes a talk as well, whatever result he will always come in my office and have a drink.

"I'm looking forward to competing against him.”