Sheffield United: Neil Warnock speaks out ahead of a huge game against Chris Wilder's Middlesbrough
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Both teams are battling to reach the Championship play-offs. But, reading between the lines, he suspects only one will make it. Which, given the legendary manager’s knowledge and vast reserves of experience, only serves to make the outcome of Tuesday’s already emotionally charged fixture even more important.
Warnock, of course, knows both clubs inside out. He spent 388 games at the helm of United, leading them into the Premier League 16 years ago. His most recent posting was at the Riverside, before being replaced by Chris Wilder, Paul Heckingbottom’s predecessor at United, earlier this term.
Warnock also knows all about promotions, something he has achieved more times than anyone else in English football. With eight under his belt and coy about whether he will ever seek a ninth - “I’ve had plenty of job offers, but nothing in the dug-out yet” - over half a century at the coalface has taught Warnock to trust his instincts.
“I’ve just got this feeling,” he continues, speaking from his home in Cornwall, “That it’s going to be one of these two. There’s reasons for that. I think they’re both set up for it. They’ve both got the teams to do it and, if they qualify, then they’re going to be going in there with momentum. And that, the momentum side of things, is so important. Because it breeds confidence. If there’s a winner here, they’ll take so much of that away with them.”
Now aged 73, Warnock’s career in the dug-out might be winding down. But he remains connected in the game and still keeps a keen eye on developments; particularly those in South Yorkshire and on Teesside, where towards the end of his reign, Middlesbrough beat United six months ago.
Eight weeks after that contest, Warnock’s good friend Slavisa Jokanovic was relieved of his duties and replaced by Heckingbottom. “I really like what Paul has done since coming in. He’s brought results, developed a style, and seems to have got the whole place believing in itself again. But for me, his real masterstroke was bringing Macca (Stuart McCall) in as his assistant. Seriously, don’t underestimate what a good move that was.”
A former Scotland international, McCall joined United’s backroom staff within hours of Heckingbottom’s appointment with Jack Lester becoming head of player development after leaving their academy. Warnock worked with both - McCall and Lester - during his spell with United and is adamant they will prove worth their weight in gold. “I know Paul was working with the youth team before stepping up and had a spell in caretaker charge before. But getting Macca there, that was brilliant. Looking in, you always felt Paul needed someone alongside him who knows United inside out and Macca does. Plus, the great thing from Paul’s point of view, is that he knows he’s not a threat to him. They’ll be able to bounce off each other and trust each other because of that.”
NEIL JOKES ABOUT JACK
Lester’s role includes a brief to work with United’s strikers, honing the finishing skills they hope will propel them to victory over a Middlesbrough side which makes the journey south sixth in the table. United are seventh, and one point behind.
“Jack, he always used to crack me up,” Warnock continues, bursting into laughter. “He was a great forward. He was also the best diver I ever had. Seriously, even when I studied him on video there were times when I couldn’t tell how he’d fallen over. Or if he’s needed to go over. But seriously, again, he knows United and he knows what is required to be a really good goalscorer. He’s a top lad too, just like Macca. And just like Macca, he’ll give his all for Paul. He’ll look out for him but he’ll give an opinion too.”
GOODBYE TO BORO
Already a huge encounter given their position in the rankings, Wilder’s presence in the opposition technical area spreads an extra layer of intrigue across an already huge game. Warnock doesn’t have a close relationship with the man who succeeded him in the North-East, despite the fact they both grew up supporting United and are among their most successful ever managers. “I was going to leave Middlesbrough at the end of the season anyway. Then Chris came in. I think they’d be told it was then or never.”
But he does have an in-depth understanding of the squad Wilder, who led United from the third to the first tier of the domestic pyramid before departing last year, inherited. “I know he’s got a brilliant group up there, because without being funny it’s the one that I built. We did a lot of work on it, getting rid of one lad who wasn’t a good influence in the dressing room. Now I know the spirit among the lads is great. The new lads who have come in since, they’re not really starting at the moment.
“The ones who have been there a while, they’re a great bunch. I got a lot of lovely messages when I left. They don’t give up either, you’ve seen that so many times of late.”
After 18 managerial postings, at places as diverse as Oldham Athletic, Scarborough and Leeds, Warnock is now focusing on his second passion - poetry - and preparing for a nationwide speaking tour set to include pit stops in the Welsh capital, Sheffield and potentially London Palladium.
“I’ve always written poems,” he smiles. “Ever since I was a kid. I like the rhymes, I remember doing one on the bus to a really big game for United and reading it to the players. Whether they enjoyed it or not, who knows? But I did and it helped the mood, lightened the atmosphere.”