Neil Warnock sees a life after football; a life that does not involve retirement on the grounds of ill health.
When he came to Leeds he spoke passionately about the game but soberly too about outstaying his welcome and ending his days “being pushed around Looe in a wheelchair.”
Spend time in his company and you start to doubt whether Warnock has it in him to leave his work behind. He has no desire to die on the job, as he once put it, but on certain days the thought of a football-free existence must kill him. There’s a reason why Sir Alex Ferguson fights on at the age of 70 and a reason why a millionaire pensioner subjected himself to the stress of owning Leeds United. It’s what they do and all they know.
Only twice has Warnock given the impression that managing Leeds was more hassle that it was worth; a waste of time for a coach who is 64 today. Back in May, when United were courting investors and struggling – and failing – to raise the £400,000 needed to sign Joel Ward from Portsmouth, he began a holiday in the Caribbean in a black mood, depressed by United’s general impotence. Some of us wondered if his first act upon returning to England would be to wash his hands and submit his resignation. For a coach like Warnock, there are always other clubs and other jobs. Or a comfortable, healthy retirement if he wants it.
The same attitude and body language was evident during the press conference held by him before Leeds’ game at Millwall a fortnight ago. His deflated comments bordered on an admission of defeat, a stream of consciousness from a manager who saw no light at the end of the tunnel and shook his head at the mention of promotion. It was, very nearly, Gary McAllister after MK Dons and Simon Grayson after Barnsley; men with no answer to the question of where they go from here.
By the time the takeover of Leeds went through last week, the process had all but consumed Warnock. It was plain to see that he could not look beyond it – beyond the tormenting idea of how much better his job would be if new ownership, fresh funding and a breath of clean air actually materialised. By the time it went through he shared the attitude of so many supporters: never going to happen. Asked about his future before the loss at Millwall, Warnock said: “I don’t really want to answer that question.” So we all read between the lines instead.
But hope springs eternal and United’s manager does likewise. The defeated image he drew of himself on November 16 faded after Tuesday’s victory over Leicester City. He was bouncing off the walls in comparison, jovial and bright-eyed. You might ask how he was supposed to react after successive wins against two well-placed Championship clubs but those results were only a start. Statistically, promotion still rests on a return of close to two points a game. In Warnock’s eyes, it is the bigger picture created by GFH Capital’s buy-out which makes that exacting ratio possible.
There may be some form of psychological explanation for the upturn against Leicester and Crystal Palace, some enlightenment caused by a change of ownership, but the simple observation is that Leeds played well. Their midfield was compact and more competitive and their defence thinned the gaps in which other teams have run riot. They attacked with width and attacked in numbers, albeit without threatening an avalanche of goals. It is Warnock’s strategy as we have come to understand it; the difference being that his strategy worked.
He credited that in part to his new signings, Alan Tate and Jerome Thomas, saying the club would not have won either game without them. It was a bold statement. Their accomplished performances received due attention but it went much further – almost too far – to define them as match-winning. Perhaps Warnock was talking in a wider sense about the message given off by the timely arrival of two Premier League players in the hours after GFH Capital’s takeover. It is hard to imagine that Tate and Thomas are the final pieces in the puzzle at Elland Road. But after so many weeks of inactivity in the transfer market and a stream of poor results, it might genuinely feel that way.
For the time being, Warnock has what he wanted: new owners with one foot in the door and enough resources to see him through to the start of January. In return, those new owners will expect him to reach January with a satisfactory league position in tact. The entire season is reliant on Leeds staying in touch. And so, in a way, is Warnock himself.
His position at Elland Road and his prosperity as manager are intrinsically linked to this critical period of eight or nine Championship fixtures. He is, after all, a coach whose contract expires at the end of the season. If his one-year project goes awry, he cannot count on a second chance. He might not want a second chance. So for all that GFH Capital planned to throw money at the squad next month, the company needs an incentive to do so. It needs the league table to convince it that Warnock will not be buying players for a different manager to work with in the Championship next season. At this early stage of ownership, it needs results.
That thought must have dawned on Warnock as soon as the takeover crossed the line last week. He is well liked by GFH Capital’s staff and well respected on account of his CV but the deal between Ken Bates and the private equity firm drew a line in the sand. It removed a wealth of valid excuses for why Leeds were cut so far adrift of the Championship’s play-off positions.
The new owners have done their bit, in the short-term at least.
Warnock and his players must now do theirs.
With that in mind, it cannot have been coincidence that the announcement of the takeover preceded two performances as disciplined as those which pole-axed Palace and Leicester. United’s football was that of a squad whose attention had been sharply focused. That’s the thing about a new broom.
It’s always waiting to sweep the stables clean. But you can tell from Warnock’s demeanour that he’s not ready to let this go. Not yet.