Instead a brief conversation, about football kits, family and touchline faux-pas, turned out to be the moment he realised this was the type of guy he would run through brick walls for.
“I was a young lad, enjoying my first proper spell in the first team, and I got the nod towards the end of a game against Barnsley that he wanted me to come on,” the former Sheffield United midfielder remembers, admitting he still feels a touch embarrassed. “We were drawing, the gaffer wanted to break things up, and then the signal arrived that I could get on the pitch. I took off my tracksuit top and realised I didn’t have my shirt on. I’d left it in the dressing room. Then, sod’s law, the ball just wouldn’t go out of play. I was standing there, with him looking furious behind me, thinking ‘Please don’t let them score, please don’t let them score.’ Fortunately they didn’t and I was able to go out there. The look on his face, though. Let’s just say I could tell he wasn’t very happy.”
Tomorrow, when United visit Middlesbrough for their latest Championship assignment, Warnock will be in the opposition dugout attempting to lay the foundations for what would be the ninth promotion of a remarkable career spanning more than four decades and 16 different clubs. But 20 years ago, things were very different. As the squad he would eventually lead into the Premier League began to take shape, the only thing on Warnock’s mind was ensuring United - and those chosen to represent them - realised their potential.
“We were going away to Birmingham straight after the game, on our players’ Christmas party,” Tonge continues, picking up the story of the day he discovered one of the secrets of Warnock’s success. “I spent the entire time we were there worrying what he was going to say to me when we got back.
“We were training on the Tuesday and he didn’t say a word to me. That got me even more worried. Then, afterwards, when I’d got changed he called me back into the dressing room, told the groundsman to leave us, and I thought ‘This is it, here we go.’
“Neil admitted he was going to fine me for what I’d done, because it was pretty unprofessional. ‘But I spoke to Sharon, my wife, and she told me ‘Don’t fine him a week or two weeks wages. He’s a young lad and it happens,’ those were his words. So he just patted me on the back and told me not to do it again. And do you know what? If he had b*******d me, which he’d have been perfectly entitled to do, I might have lost all my confidence because I’d have felt under real pressure. Instead, I can remember thinking ‘I really want to play for this bloke.’ He was, still is I’m sure, brilliant like that.”
Tonge, who would go on to make 302 appearances for United including 27 in the top-flight, paints a picture of Warnock far removed from the combustible, confrontational figure he is often portrayed as thanks to his antics on the touchline. Opinionated and brutally frank in public, the 72-year-old is a committed family man in private and fiercely protective of his players. It explains why those who have actually enjoyed the chance to get to know him have a very different take on Warnock to those whose perception has been formed from afar.
“Things get said in the heat of the moment but I guarantee you, pretty much everyone who has played for Neil only has good things to say,” insists Tonge, who later worked under Warnock during a brief spell at Leeds. “Plenty of folk reckon they understand what he’s about. But the truth is very different from what you hear them saying.”
“Neil would back you,” he continues. “Often, the things you thought he’d explode at he wouldn’t.
“If one of the lads got into a fight on a night out, he’d want to know what happened but he’d be privately supportive if they’d been goaded into it. He wouldn’t like it but he’d know there was a reason. If you missed a pass in training though, well. He’d go spare because he didn’t want standards to slip.”
Warnock spent seven-and-a-half seasons with United, reaching a Championship play-off final and the last four of both domestic cup competitions before leaving when they were demoted from the top-flight. Slavisa Jokanovic, the man now tasked with leading them back to the highest level, is a very different character. But the Serb, who took charge in July soon after Chris Wilder’s departure, shares a number of traits with his counterpart on Teesside.
“He’s laid back. He does a lot of analysis of the opposition. He looks at your strengths and, like Chris, really backs his players and gives us confidence.”
Jokanovic, who enjoyed success with both Watford and Fulham before arriving in South Yorkshire, outlined his respect for Warnock ahead of a match which pits 11th versus 18th in the table.
Tonge, now a member of the coaching staff at Huddersfield Town’s academy, predicts it will be a more strategic contest than many people imagine.
“Slavisa is seen as being really strong on the training ground and a great tactician,” he says. “He is but, even though he’s got this reputation for being all about man-management, you don’t achieve what Neil has without understanding that side too..
“We never went into a game without knowing all about our opponents. Never. Slavisa is the same, from what I can see and hear.”