Neil Warnock’s marriage with Leeds United was the end result of a total loss of confidence in Simon Grayson.
The club did not sack Grayson because they wanted Warnock; they sacked him because they no longer trusted his management. Their pursuit of Warnock began two weeks later.
Football is like that: the man of the job one day, a busted flush the next. Nigel Adkins read the script yesterday. In an interview published in today’s YEP, Richard Naylor – Leeds’ ex-captain and their Under-18s coach – untied the elephant in the room by asking why so many people flock towards management when that line of employment is so exacting and ruthless.
Where is the appeal in standing on the touchline at Barnsley with chants of ‘time to go’ ringing in your ears?
Here is the irony of Warnock’s treatment last Saturday. He was, by a rough estimation, the most popular and credible appointment since United’s demotion from the Premiership. Yet no manager since Kevin Blackwell has seen that level of mutiny on a Saturday afternoon.
Dennis Wise had his battles and support for Grayson and Gary McAllister ran desperately low by the time they were sacked but it no way did it feel like their P45s were issued at the crowd’s behest. They simply ran out of lives.
Warnock’s insistence that an overwhelming number of supporters still support him – the “hardcore fans” as he put it on Thursday – was much like Ken Bates’ regular claim that those who opposed his methods of club ownership made up the minority.
Who can say for sure? You judge by what you hear on the ground and the mood in Leeds is restless. Sometimes it feels like the mood in Leeds is always restless. You worry on occasions that 10 years of pent-up frustration is itself a barrier to progress; a hindrance that can only be cured by the one thing which inflames it – the promise of an end to United’s mediocrity.
Warnock’s job at Elland Road was always seen as a 15-month experiment, both by him and the people who employed him. Either it worked out this season or it didn’t work out. Warnock made no effort to pretend otherwise. He talked of retiring this summer at the age of 64, and his contract included a clause allowing him to extricate himself from Leeds last May. There were times when many in the press expected him to activate it, so fraught were the early days of the transfer window.
But that caveat and get-out-clause notwithstanding, it was barely suggested that Warnock might fail. It did not occur to anyone that he would face calls for his dismissal less than a year after taking up the post. Too experienced, too wise. Too capable a manager to face outright animosity so early on. But here we are with the season on edge.
Warnock would blame several factors for the tension around him: the takeover not least and the summer transfer window most of all. He got many of the players he wanted to sign but not enough to feel that his squad was complete. In Robert Snodgrass, he lost the one existing squad member he desperately wanted to keep.
It was a woeful prelude to the season ahead but the criticism of Warnock at Oakwell implied that the summer no longer passes as an excuse. The crowd have taken to judging players and performances on their own merit and they are finding fault with both.
As the man at the top, they are finding fault with Warnock too, picking holes in his team selections and deriding his tactics. It is not fair to say that the season has gone nowhere but it is hard to know if it is going anywhere. Ambiguity breeds contempt when 27 games are down already.
The calls for Warnock’s head were nonetheless impulsive. Much like last season, you do not get the feeling of promotion in your bones but it is not an impossibility. Moreover, it is far too late in the day to rearrange the furniture. The transfer window shuts in less than a fortnight and nothing in the past two weeks has spoken of surplus cash swilling around Elland Road. This so far is a January window like many seen under the previous regime. What chance, really, of United rolling out the big guns now?
If January is a difficult time to sign players then it is a worse time to change managers. The events of 12 months ago tell you that. It is risible, still, to read the statement issued after Grayson’s sacking and see the club justify his dismissal as a means of bridging the gap to the play-offs. Leeds weren’t good enough after 28 games. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t good enough after 46 games either. It tends to be the way.
Warnock’s opinion of Grayson’s squad was low when he inherited it and the improvement was negligible. So too was the scope to alter it. And that it the point. This, at present, is Warnock’s squad, built by him to suit his own philosophy.
If anyone is going to do anything with it, it stands to reason that it will be him. The die for this season was cast long ago and Warnock should be left to roll it, even if promotion depends on him rolling a six.
Consider the alternative. GFH Capital, four weeks on from its buy-out and with no discernible experience of managerial recruitment, cuts Warnock loose and looks for a replacement. In the interests of making something of this season an appointment is needed instantly. Yesterday if possible. Strike from the list anyone whose employment would involve complex negotiations with their existing club or compensation beyond what Leeds can afford. Overlook anyone who has options to consider or prefers to bide his time. In other words, get who you can or fall back on a caretaker while possibilities present themselves. All in all, it worked brilliantly last year.
There is a bigger picture here and a more relevant consideration for GFH Capital – the matter of what happens when this season ends. If Leeds are promoted, it would take a cold heart to deny Warnock an extension to his contract.
If they aren’t, it is hard to believe that he or the club would push too hard for a renewal of that deal. So what then and who then? Which individual fits GFH Capital’s long-term vision? That is what United’s owners should be asking themselves as Warnock soldiers on.