Neil Warnock – A Marmite Figure of English (and Welsh) Football


Few men can say that they began their football managerial career whilst juggling work as a chiropodist. Few men have made achieving promotion from the world’s most competitive division seem like a simple party trick. Few men will ever be so equally revered and despised by fans across the country like Neil Warnock.

With the most recent announcement of his retirement on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday, the time seems apt to provide a brief, but comprehensive, review of the South Yorkshireman’s illustrious managerial career.

‘That busy looking good’

This is a career that spanned over 42 years, 16 clubs and a record 8 promotions. As a result, it is almost impossible to give justice to what this man achieved in English football within 800 words, but I shall do my best.

A grafter through and through, Warnock cut his managerial teeth with the likes of Gainsborough Trinity and Burton Albion before eventually breaching into the unmarked territory of the English Football League with Scarborough.

His time at the ‘Theatre of Chips’ soon allowed him to truly impact the lower steps of the football pyramid, with back-to-back promotions at Notts County, followed by a similarly triumphant period with Plymouth Argyle.

With four promotions to his name, and an abundance of ambition, the wildly passionate Warnock pursued his ultimate dream. This was to be promotion to the promised land of the Premier League with his boyhood club Sheffield United.

The gifts Warnock had as a football manager are as rare as gold dust in the modern era

During his well-documented first few years in the Bramall Lane dugout, Warnock often cast a Captain Ahab-esque look as he tried and tried again to bring the Blades into the lofty heights of English football’s highest division.

Nevertheless, with typical perseverance, this crown finally arrived in the 2005/06 season; however, Warnock was infamously unable to keep the Blades club afloat in the Premier League. In 2007, with the lingering feeling of such heartbreak, he left the club and sought fresh footballing pastures.

In the following decade and a half, more success arrived with the likes of QPR and Cardiff, as well as relatively enjoyable spells with Crystal Palace and Rotherham.

He notably kept the latter in the Championship by nine points, and frequently describes his miraculous ‘Great Escape’ with the Millers as his greatest achievement. In November 2021, he left Middlesbrough after an uneventful spell. With this departure, Warnock’s glorious career has seemingly come to its end.

‘You’ve got to die to get three points’

So, what makes the man so great? The facts and statistics speak for themselves. No manager oversees 1,603 games merely by pure luck. The gifts Warnock had as a football manager are as rare as gold dust in the modern era.

He has been effortlessly adaptable for the past 43 years and has utilised man management skills that are seemingly extinct nowadays. To be capable of harnessing the mercurial tendencies of players like Adel Taraabt as well as he did takes something special, and Warnock was something special.

At times he appeared like a restless Spartan general on the touchline, conducting himself with virtually unmatched ferocity and passion. A Goliath figure with the heart of David, Warnock could turn simple stadiums into cauldrons of fury, with every supporter of his cause willing their lads on to impossible dreams. Having him as your manager felt like having an uncompromising cheat code in the Championship. Somehow, some way, he would always manage to get the job done.

Somehow, some way, he would always manage to get the job done

When we cast our eyes back through the annals of British football history, I do hope Warnock will not be overlooked as some cheap long-ball merchant. As a manager, he was so much more than that.

The hardest thing to do in football is to give the perception of simplicity whilst being successful, and he did this time and time again. It is certainly a shame that he was never able to consolidate himself at the top of the game. Unfortunately, he came to the fore during a transformative period for elite English football that was sadly intolerant to his more abrasive style of play.

Nevertheless, Warnock can look back on a long career well spent. As a marmite figure of English (and Welsh) football, the Yorkshireman’s career ought to be remembered for what it represented: Warnock did it his way, and nothing is more admirable than that.

On the pitch he commanded his devoted legions with an inextinguishable fire in his belly. Off the pitch, his nonchalant and jovial character provided a refreshing sight that glowed in comparison to the more morose and withdrawn figures of the modern era.

If this is truly the end, then Warnock can walk out with his head held high and be confident that he did his part in the beautiful game.

Image: Hammersmith and Fulham Council via Flickr

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