YOU can’t keep a good manager down, it seems. The rambunctious Neil Warnock has returned to football, hoping to keep Crystal Palace in the Premier Division. But how does Warnock shape up behind the notorious bluster? Bryan Cooney found out in this Sunday Herald interview, from October 2011, when Warnock was manager of QPR.
TABULATING the names of those who have tumbled into dispute with Neil Warnock over the last 30 years would inflict writer’s cramp on any man foolhardy enough to volunteer for the task.
The more recent antagonists come, principally, from Warnock’s own inflammable world: Gerard Houllier, Phil Thompson, Stan Ternent, Joe Kinnear, Wally Downes, Gareth Southgate and, memorably, El Hadji Diouf.
The thespian world cannot be removed from the equation, however. Actor Sean Bean, alias TV’s Sharpe, allegedly took exception to Sheffield United’s relegation from the Premiership, burst into Warnock’s office, and shocked the occupants with an unscripted and pejorative speech.
It would be in order to say, then, that this football manager lives by the sword and the match-day snarl; when the adrenaline is coursing through him, you look into his eyes and realise you’re infiltrating a war zone.
But is this a true reflection of the man himself? Today, in the voluminous shadow of Heathrow, I discover another animal altogether. As Premiership newcomers QPR take lunch at their training ground and Joey Barton awaits an audience with his new mentor, I’m permitted to glimpse a few rare moments of vulnerability in Warnock.
Essentially, he is a man who thrives on the esprit de corps of his footballers and of the family unit. And yet he loves being alone on a Scottish golf course, clad in waterproofs, being battered by rain that is coming at him horizontally. A hot bath, supplemented by Radox, and a couple of malt whiskies completes a perfect day..
Membership of Blairmore and Strone Golf Club, Dunoon – he was encouraged to join by his wife Sharon’s grandparents – gives him time to think about the future and, of course, the past. Even though he is a millionaire manager living in white-collar Richmond, the past is essential to a man like Warnock. Thus, he closes his eyes and draws you back to his youth and a two-bed roomed, semi-detached in Sheffield.
His father was a steel worker; his mother a victim of multiple sclerosis. The image of his invalided mother is stronger. “Well, I’m just sat in front of the wheelchair when she used to play with me hair. I used to fall asleep. It was brilliant. And if I was in trouble, she’d always stick up for me. I was the little black sheep, but in her eyes I was a nice black sheep. She was lovely in that respect.
“I didn’t appreciate my dad as much then. He was very strict and used to whack me a few times. He used to get the belt out – it was normal in them days – but as I get older, you realise, don’t you? He used to work 16-hour shifts. Then he’d come home, have to clean, feed and look after three kids. I’ve grown to understand that it must have been so difficult for him…”
His mum’s condition, he stresses, shaped him as a person. “I had a chip on my shoulder as a kid. ‘Why me?’ I kept asking myself. Why did it have to happen to my mum? I felt sorry for her. She was in a wheelchair and went progressively all the way down the line. MS is such a cruel illness, ’cos you do get remissions, but then you go back to where you were.
“It was like being in prison for her, not being able to do anything. She used to get frustrated. I still remember a lot of things she said to me, and I use them with my kids as well.”
We are now safely distanced from the aggravation of Warnock’s day job. At this moment he is demonstrating all the aggression of your average philatelist. Indeed those famous eyes, instead of registering rage, are moist with the memory of days gone by.
He tells you he’d be tending the garden when neighbours would inquire as to his mother’s health. He’d be incensed. He wanted them to go in and see her. So, he’d tell them. “But it was almost as if she had leprosy. They didn’t want to go through the door. That’s how it was in them days. Nobody had got time.
“ I suppose you get influenced by things like that. Now, time seems to be in ever shorter supply. Look, I would never, like, say ‘no’ to anybody asking for an autograph. At every Premiership ground, I go outside and sign autographs until they’re finished. Nowadays, it’s all drive in, get off the bus with your earphones on, and don’t look at the public. Not me. I used to think it fantastic to collect autographs. When they stop asking you, that’s the time to start worrying, son.
“But, yeah, I often think about Mum and Dad, looking down on me and being absolutely amazed at what I’ve achieved. When I have good moments, like last year when we won the Championship, I can be on the pitch, celebrating, and for a moment it’s as if there’s nobody else on the pitch. It’s just a quietness. It’s like just a quietness. It’s a weird feeling, really, when I just think about me mum and dad. It’s a weird feeling.
“What would they have been thinking if they’d been here now? It drives me on. They drive me on. I love to make people happy, to make supporters happy. I go into a club and I’m like Red Adair. I go in to put the fires out and try to get them back on the go again.”
This fire fighter is 62 years of age but looks a decade younger. Knowing him as I do, I ask him whether Botox can claim responsibility for the smooth features. The response is gentle. No offence is taken. “I‘ve had no operations, just plenty of creams and a good family and a wife who looks after me. I’m very much enjoying life at the minute. I’m contented.”
And nothing, it seems, can upset that equilibrium. An attempt to destabilise him – I tell him I recently interviewed a famous manager who claimed he was offered the Queens Park Rangers job – fails abysmally. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. If I’m honest, I didn’t think I’d be here at this stage. I thought I’d have gone with the last (ownership) regime.
“ It was all about Flavio (Briatore). I mean, he got through a lot of managers (nine).I had some lighter moments with him as well, but I don’t think I would have lasted long (if he’d stayed). A number of managers were asked about taking on the job while I was here. But that’s par for the course, really. Whatever, I was doing handstands when Tony Fernandez (the new owner) came through the door.”
Warnock is not intimidated by the threat of the sack, or apparently by the new-age players, some of whom consider themselves above the law. His experience means he can deal with almost anything lobbed his way. “I think that Sir Alex (Ferguson), Harry (Redknapp) and me, there is a number of old stooges coming to the end of their careers. You’re not going to get any more like that.
“Same with you journalists. You can’t put a price on experience. A few years ago, they had the fad of young managers and ex-England players, and then you’d get young managers with clipboards. But it’s come full circle now. I’m thinking that flared trousers might come back soon as well.”
I ask him if he is pals with Sir Alex. “No, we used to be on Christmas card terms, but he hasn’t sent me one for the last couple of years. He was just a bit peeved at one or two things. When I was at Sheffield, I said how disappointed I was when he played a weakened team against West Ham and (Carlos) Tevez. But I (should) keep things like that to myself, really.”
Now we’re back with the day job and, of course, the problems attached to it. What about all the notoriety he has assembled? “I’m very passionate about me football. Once the whistle goes at the end, I suppose I’m as nice as anyone else. It’s just the way I am. I don’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve not got a lot of time for people who lie: I’ve always fallen out with them. But you don’t survive in this game without having blow-ups.”
How long do the rages last? “Two minutes. I can come off and go ballistic in the dressing room, and then I’ll go and have a shower and it’s finished. I don’t hold grudges. I don’t think about what a boy’s said to me. Life’s too short for that.”
No resentments whatsoever, then? “Well, there are certain managers I’ve fallen out with who even now I wouldn’t talk to. You can’t have a life like I’ve had without having one or two people you can’t abide.”
That leads us, rather organically, to Messers Diouf and Bean. “Yeah, I called Diouf a sewer rat. The things he said to that lad Jamie Mackie, who was laid down with a broken leg…well, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him. (Warnock and Diouf, it should be pointed out, reconciled briefly when the latter became one of Leeds many managers)
“Mister Bean? I suppose, in his case, drink influenced him a little bit at that moment. I wouldn’t want to speak to him, either. He said things in front of me wife and youngster. He didn’t deny it. He had to come out and say something ’cos it wasn’t his image, was it?”
Joey Barton is becoming impatient, so my time with Warnock is over. As ever it’s been productive. I’m thoughtful as I leave Harlington. My new book, Fingerprints of a Football Rascal, has just come out on Kindle. In it, I’m close up and personal with some of the game’s greatest characters. Curiously, Warnock isn’t included. The odds are he’ll provide a whole chapter if there’s a sequel.
PICTURE COURTESY OF:Hammersmith & Fulham Council