As Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock prepares to face one of his 16 former clubs in Rotherham on Wednesday evening, Holly Hunt caught up with the veteran to discuss how it all started some 40 years ago.
When he stepped into the breach at Rotherham United at the tail end of the 2015/16 season, Neil Warnock himself wasn’t sure he would be able to keep the Championship strugglers from the drop.
In November 2015, his wife Sharon was diagnosed with breast cancer and Warnock initially turned Rotherham down, until he overheard a conversation between his wife and a health care worker.
“Sharon was having chemotherapy down in Cornwall and I went with her one morning,” he recounted. “She was talking about me to the nurse and I was sat there reading the paper. I could hear her saying, ‘he never frumps the cushions’ and ‘he splashes everywhere when he washes the pots’ and telling her how I get on her nerves.
“That morning, Rotherham’s chairman, Tony Stewart, asked if I’d go and help them out for the last two-and-a-half months. They were six points adrift in the relegation zone. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’d love to but it’s too far for me’.
“So I said to my wife ‘Listen, darling, Tony from Rotherham rang me so I’ll go there if you want me to get out your way’. She said ‘Go on then, get off!’”
The now-72-year-old went on to pull off what is lauded as one of the most remarkable great escapes in EFL history with the Millers, and Rotherham lived to fight another day in the second tier.
“I owe it all to Rotherham,” he explained. “If I hadn’t have gone to Rotherham, I wouldn’t be in the job now here.Embed from Getty Images
“It gave me back that buzz because we did things in those 15 games that the players and I didn’t think were possible.”
One of the most iconic managers in the English Football League, Warnock turned down a new deal at the New York Stadium and moved on to Cardiff in October 2016, vowing to have just one final season in the dugout before taking a much deserved retirement.
“The club was in a mess when I got there. I was putting fires out all over the show. We were up there all season and we went up automatically to the Premier League.
“We weren’t far off staying up, either. We got done with a few decisions at the end of the season which cost us and cost me a few quid for complaining, too!” he laughed.
Everyone has to start somewhere and Warnock was no different. He first cut his teeth in the Northern Premier League in the summer of 1980 after cornering then-Gainsborough Trinity chairman Ken Marsden and offering to take on the vacancy as player-manager of the non-League club.Embed from Getty Images
“Ken had a reputation for dominating his managers and picking the team before I went there, so I knew I had to start off on a strong footing,” Warnock, who was in his early 30s at the time, said.
“I knew if I could deal with Ken, it helped me all through my career dealing with people from above. If I listen to directors and owners, I’ve got no chance of surviving. I had to do my own thing and stick to it.”
Gainsborough has just the one football club with a modest fan-base which Warnock set out on a mission to grow when he first joined. And, to use his favourite word, he brought some discipline to the Lincolnshire club.
“We’d go around local pubs on a Tuesday after training and have darts and dominos games to try and get the supporters back involved. That’s what I’ve done everywhere I’ve been. Even now I do similar things. We ended up having over 1,500 people against Worksop Town.
“We only trained twice a week but we bought blue V-neck sweaters for everybody and we all had to wear them to training because I wanted the lads to look smart.”
He hasn’t forgotten his roots, either. He frequently drops in on the Northolme and used to take his Sheffield United players down to the ground.
He last paid a visit to the club in 2016. With Gainsborough embroiled in a relegation battle, Warnock headed down to the training ground to give the players some pointers.
“At Sheffield United, I could come to pre-season since it was just down the road and have a game so I used to like bringing the team over. I loved sitting in the stand.”
After six months, he left Gainsborough in the top half of the table and moved on to Burton Albion, where he’d finished his playing career in the late 1970s. Warnock galvanised Burton, leading the club to victory in the Northern Premier League Challenge Cup final in April 1983.
The “Manchester United of non-League” became his third club and arguably, his biggest break. A common theme of all of Warnock’s teams is the underdog label and Scarborough were no different.
“I went down to Nuneaton Borough, who were playing Scarborough, to go and meet the Nuneaton manager to be his assistant. I ended up talking to the Scarborough’s chairman, Barry Adamson. I said I could never live in Scarborough.
“Ten days later I got a phone call asking me to come up for an interview and I ended up getting the job!
“That was my biggest achievement,” he continued. “There were only two players signed at that time and I took 25 players over to talk them into signing. We were 50/1 to go up and favourites to finish bottom of the league. To get promotion that year was tremendous.”
His tactics were slightly more unorthodox 35 years ago and there are stories that Scarborough purposely jammed the away dressing room window to allow the coaching staff to listen to the opposing manager’s team talk.
However, he came to a crossroads when Scarborough made it to the Football League: would he become Neil Warnock the manager or Neil Warnock the chiropodist?
“I was still cutting toenails in Debenhams and British Home Stores!” he exclaimed. “We had a good FA Cup run at Burton and the BBC filmed me cutting toenails, and somebody putting a false foot in so they got it on video.
“When Scarborough got promotion, that was when I had to decide. I’d got a really lucrative chiropody business but I had patients every 30 minutes. I used to leave the telephone on for on call every half-an-hour and then take the phone off the hook, otherwise I couldn’t do my job, with all the journalists and newspapers.
“I knew it would be too much when we got promotion so I thought I could always come back to chiropody but I said to myself, ‘Let’s have a go for five years and see what happens.’ I’ve never looked back.”
More than four decades on and the EFL can’t seem to get rid of Warnock even if they tried. In June last year, he penned a short-term deal with Middlesbrough, who sat outside of the bottom three on goal difference. Warnock came to the rescue and Boro finished in 17th.
“It’s a bug really. I enjoy that final whistle when you’ve won a game and I like to think about supporters going home happy. I try and put smiles on people’s faces if I can.”
Although he signed a new contract simply to reach a milestone, he couldn’t resist the pull of the Championship.
“I thought I’d quit altogether but I needed 12 games to reach 1,500 and there were only eight left of the season when Steve Gibson [Middlesbrough chairman] asked me. I have a lot of time for Steve so I came up here for the eight games and he asked me to stay on to get my 1,500. Now, I’m up here instead of retiring.
“They told me a month into this season that I actually already had 1,535 and it wasn’t 1,400 and something!”
Life might not be a beach anymore for Warnock, who holds a permanent residence down on the south coast, but he was simply grateful to still be managing after contracting COVID-19 last year.
“I caught the virus about two months ago,” he said. “I didn’t have it on my chest thankfully but it was a bit frightening so I try and get everybody to realise how important it is.
“Life’s too short, especially when you get to my age.”
You can hear a pin drop at the Riverside Stadium now, and Warnock admitted he has to be slightly wary about the instructions he’s relaying to players, with every word picked up by television cameras.
“We’re just outside the play-offs, we’ve got a good group of lads and it’s a great club but I just miss the fans.
“I’ve got to be careful now but I’m still shouting at referees!”
Follow Holly on Twitter at @hollyhunt10