Neil Warnock tells Phil Hay it would have easy to quit Elland Road but he wanted to see the job through.
It is rare to see Neil Warnock looking weary but on this occasion, sat in his office, he does. “It’s been bloody non-stop,” he says, rubbing his eyes.
You can’t be sure whether he means this particular Monday or the summer as a whole. If he means the summer then non-stop is about right. Eleven players signed, a football team rebuilt and many hours of sleep lost in the process. “I can’t remember a more tiring period. I’ve had so much going round in my head.”
So much, in fact, that it’s difficult to know where to start. The lead-up to his first full season as Leeds United manager has posed countless questions. How stressful has it been and did he ever doubt that he’d reach the new season with an adequate squad and a fighting chance? Were there nights when he thought about walking away? And how has the unfulfilled promise of a takeover at Leeds interfered with his work?
The first part of that question can be answered by the story of Warnock’s summer holiday, taken with his wife Sharon and youngest children in the Caribbean at the start of June.
He had planned to sign as many as four players before taking leave of Thorp Arch but a shortage of transfer funds saw to it that he signed only one, denied the money needed to bring in Joel Ward and others. He boarded his plane with the media asking if a frustrated Warnock was about to take up an option to sever his contract and clear his desk.
“All football managers are looking to sign players,” Warnock says. “But our situation was different. We needed different players in just about every position, all over the team. This summer was never going to be easy.
“I found myself standing on the touchline last season thinking ‘nobody here – and I really mean nobody – is irreplaceable.’ That’s how bad it was. Even though I wanted to keep Robert Snodgrass, I didn’t think there was anyone we couldn’t do without. I’ve never seen that before.
“The performances embarrassed me but at the same time I knew it wasn’t my team. I knew I’d get my own team in time. What I didn’t expect was such a fight to bring each and every one of my targets.
“Losing Joel Ward was the low point. It made me take a long, hard look at the club and my job. I was more than disappointed about that, especially when at that time I had offers on the table to manage elsewhere – very tempting offers. I’d be a liar to say that I didn’t think about those offers. But I honestly felt the real challenge was here.
“I managed to get a holiday and it wasn’t completely ruined but it wasn’t the best either. I didn’t know how on earth we were going to get a team together so I was making calls all over the shop, despite promising Sharon I’d turn my phone off. There I was – an hour in the morning, an hour at night, sneaking round the corner pretending to build sandcastles or whatever excuse I could think of.
“It’s been a long, long summer and I’ve had days when I was banging my head off the desk but at the same time I’ve not got many summers left in football. So what the hell? What was it Gary Player used to say? The harder you work the luckier you get. Well, let’s see.”
His sweat and tears were the consequence of so many things, not least the situation he inherited when he first became manager in February. Leeds were then a team with an unconvincing chance of promotion and more likely to finish halfway down the Championship, which they duly did. “I was so pleased to get to the end of the season,” Warnock says. “Some of those games...deary me. I couldn’t take any more of that.”
The saving grace for him was his blossoming relationship with United’s faithful support. Up close and personal, Warnock loved them. Most interviews make mention of them. You could accuse him of playing to the crowd but he seemed genuinely astounded by the stamina of those who had the misfortune of paying to watch last season.
I tell him that he must have known about the club’s support before he became manager. “Of course,” he says, “but hearing about them and seeing them are two different things.
“It’s crazy, you can’t go anywhere in Leeds without someone talking to you about football. Whether I’m filling up with petrol or shopping at the supermarket. People seem gobsmacked when they see me pushing a trolley around Morrisons but what can I say? I’m an ordinary guy, I’m 63 and I quite enjoy shopping. Their passion surprises me more.
“We had an open training session at Duchy College (during Leeds’ pre-season tour of Cornwall) and we had 1,200 fans there. Think about that. If I’d known so many were coming I’d have got an ice cream van up there and made a fortune! They’ll never cease to amaze me.
“It’s almost like Leeds United is their lives. Some of clubs I’ve been at, following football is the supporters’ hobby. Here, I think it’s more to them than a hobby. Leeds United to a lot of people is everything, the be-all and end-all. If we win on a Saturday, the week must be fantastic. If we lose, I can imagine them kicking the dog. The passion of these people has kept me here, and that’s no exaggeration.”
The public have watched Warnock wrestle with a restless animal. Replacing unwanted players at Leeds was no more than half the battle. He lost Snodgrass to Norwich City last month – his captain sold for £3million – and the backdrop to the entire summer has been one of boardroom manoeuvres at Elland Road. This was the summer when Ken Bates looked ready to end a seven-and-a-half year tenure as United’s chairman.
Since the earliest days of the close season, a buy-out planned by an unidentified group from the Middle East has been pending. With days to go before the start of the Championship season, it is pending still; an invisible and frustrating event to those outside the process. It appeared in May that a takeover would cross Warnock’s palm with silver but even now he has no idea if or when it will. The process is ongoing - always ongoing - in spite of it nearing the point of collapse last week.
“At the end of the day I’ve got most of the players I wanted,” Warnock says. “I might not have the exact squad I was after but it’s close. We’ve got a decent team and that’s enough for me.
“As far as the financial side and the takeover goes, I can’t let myself get sucked into that. At first I hoped it was going to happen straight away but as things have gone on, I’ve just let them get on with it. I’ve not really thought one way or the other about how it’ll turn out.
“All I know is I’m getting players in and we’re not far away from where we should be. If the takeover had come off I would probably have had a bit more money but I’ve worked on the assumption that everything’s staying the same.
“I’m the manager of the football club and I’ve got to make the best of whatever we’ve got. It’s quite simple.”
Warnock is brutally honest about his squad. At face value, he doesn’t believe they look like automatic promotion material. But he said the same of his Queens Park Rangers squad in 2010 and their success was absolute, yielding the Championship title. “Beyond automatic we can get in the mix,” he says, “If you’re in the mix, anything’s possible. I thought QPR would finish between sixth and 10th. By the end of September we were top of the league.”
That particular promotion was the seventh for Warnock as a professional manager, an English record he shares with two other coaches. He has never made a secret of the fact that he yearns for an unprecedented eighth. The achievement matters to him.
“I’d like to be the one person who’s done eight,” he says. Why? “Because when I pack in the game I want to leave a unique achievement behind. It’s an achievement to get seven, obviously, but if number eight comes along then I go out in style. I’d like that.”
Warnock has said before that he will quit management next summer when his contract at Leeds runs out. He’ll be 64 by then. I tell him that not a single person in Leeds believes he could force himself to retire having taken United into the Premier League.
“It would be almost impossible,” he concedes. “Deep down I don’t think I’ve seen all that Leeds United can be. If the club start moving then it’s going to be some journey and you know me. I’d love that. If it turns out that I can’t do the job and I can’t get us promoted then there’s nobody who would have tried harder. I can promise that.
“And I don’t think Leeds could get anyone better than me at the moment, which isn’t blowing my own trumpet. I’m made to measure for Leeds because I understand how much the club matters to the people who follow it.
“It would have been easier to leave during the summer, much easier than staying on, but I’ve felt right from day one that this was meant to be.”
By this stage, the sparkle in Warnock’s eyes is back. It’s not difficult to uncover; just talk to him about football. Or these days, talk to him about Leeds.