Neil Warnock has a reputation for talking straight and cutting to the chase. This chapter of his managerial career – the final chapter or so he thinks – will be no different if his first week at Leeds United is an example of what lies ahead.
Warnock’s introductory press conference as the club’s new manager, held at Thorp Arch yesterday, was typical of him: spirited and intriguing with no punches pulled.
The satisfaction of holding court inside United’s training ground – “just look at this place,” he said at one point, raising his eyes to the ceiling – revealed itself in every word but not to the point of him sounding blasé about the animal he had taken on.
This, he said, will be an 18-month relationship; that is, provided his vision and that of the club and their supporters continue to meet eye-to-eye. More surprising was his admission that he would not go with Leeds to the Premier League if they are promoted under him in 2013. Retirement beckons when his contract is up, and this time he claims to mean it.
But most honest of all was his appraisal of his existing squad and their prospects in the Championship between now and the end of April. As it stands, play-off qualification, in Warnock’s eyes, is hard to envisage. With the right number and standard of recruits in the emergency loan window, it might just be possible.
“I could fluff it up and say we’ll win the next 12 games,” Warnock said, “but I’m a Yorkshireman and we say it how it is. It’s been clear over the last couple of months that defensively we’re not good enough. We’ll score goals and create goals but the season’s going to come down to whether we can get players in who’ll give us the chance to have a run.
“At the moment it’s difficult to see us having a run without one or two new players. I do feel we need an input defensively. Having watched a few DVDs, we need an input to give us a chance. We need leaders on the pitch.
“That’s not knocking the lads who are here because they’re trying their hardest. But we have to try and get a couple in. If we can’t do that then we might struggle to get into the play-offs.”
Warnock’s concern is that other clubs in the division have more “solid squads”, or squads more suited to the strain of the Championship run-in. Many of them also have a useful points advantage over Leeds after the round of midweek games.
Warnock spent much of this week analysing the loan market after stressing the importance of new signings to chairman Ken Bates. If and when his targets become available, he anticipates the full support of his club.
“People don’t give the chairman enough credit,” Warnock said. “Whilst he’s got his critics, he’s a very clever man when it comes to running a football club and knowing what it takes to support a manager.
“He’s supported the managers here, looking at the wage bill, and I’ve been quite impressed by that. You’ve just got to go to him with propositions, put forward your case and hope he supports you. I’d think that nine times out of 10 he will. The way I go to my chairmen makes common sense and he’s all for that.”
Warnock’s reign as manager begins in earnest with tomorrow’s game at Portsmouth, a club in the grip of administration. His motivation in accepting United’s offer while other clubs clamoured for his services was in part to outdo Dave Bassett and Graham Taylor by winning promotion for a record eighth time – be it this season or next. After that, he cannot say for sure.
Warnock was wounded when Queens Park Rangers sacked him last month and realised soon enough that he did not feel ready to retire. But the recent death of Nottingham Forest owner Nigel Doughty, nine years Warnock’s junior at the age of 54, reminded him to bow out while his health and faculties are still intact.
“I’d have enjoyed staying in the Premier League,” Warnock said, “and I’d have taken a job in the Premier League.
“But now I’m at Leeds I’m going to concentrate on the Championship and I don’t think I’ll have enough time to manage in the Premier League again – not unless I do a miracle and get Leeds promoted this season. Only then could I see myself doing it.
“The challenge of getting promotion number eight is very high on my list. In fact, it’s right at the top and if I can do that then I would cherish it.
“I always said I wanted one more big challenge but I don’t see that going beyond the prime aim of promotion. I wouldn’t want to go into the Premier League with Leeds or anyone else to be honest. I just want to concentrate on getting us up within the time scale.”
Warnock was in touch with Doughty on the day of his death and found the news of his passing impossible to comprehend.
“A 54-year-old like Nigel Doughty,” he said. “I spoke to Nigel on the day he died and that shook me. I left a voice message and got one back from him.
“Football is a great sport and it gives us a great living but I do think there are more important things. When something like that happens, you have to stand back. I don’t want to die on the job.
“My wife doesn’t want to see me have a heart attack and then have to look after me without any quality time in between me packing up football and popping my clogs. It’s about finding a happy medium. But this challenge was too good to turn down.”
It is Warnock’s way of saying he’ll throw everything at his new job without risking his well-being. He has accepted and won challenges before, most notably with QPR and Sheffield United who both became Premier League clubs on his watch.
“Sheffield United were second class in that city,” Warnock said. “To turn it around and do what we did, people didn’t think it would be possible.
“They didn’t think it would be possible to get QPR up but there’s no such word as impossible. Anything’s possible with support, fans, a bit of luck and drive.”