Managers in the media: Colin Wa…no, Neil Warnock

Matt Stead

This week, Johnny’s positive look at our managers and how they perform on telly and radio arrives at a very controversial character who has made shouting abuse at officials – and just about everyone else, actually – into an art form. He’s also sometimes known as Colin. That’ll be Neil Warnock, then.


Who Are Ya?
Neil is from Sheffield and is the kind of quintessential Yorkshireman that his generation specialised in producing: one who is never happier than when having a big moan about some perceived slight or injustice. Every single Yorkshire family has a Neil in it. I speak as a boy born in Hull and I reckon we had at least three of them in our extended family. Men who could start an argument with thin air and a mirror; men who would fearlessly ruin a Christmas dinner by arguing over how you cook sprouts; men who were capable of being really aggressive but also really warm, who would slap you around the head for doing something wrong, but then give you money for chips and pop. Also the type to go down to school and threaten a teacher who has been an arse to his kid.

He seems to take an almost manic pleasure in winding up referees, assistants, other managers and players to the point where it is now an entertaining sort of X-rated football pantomime, with Neil playing the role of a foul-mouthed Widow Twankey.

If you are of a certain age (ie. old) you will remember Neil as a surprisingly nippy winger who plied his trade in the trenches of league football at clubs such as Chesterfield, Rotherham United, Hartlepool United, Scunthorpe United, Aldershot, Barnsley, York City and Crewe Alexandra. One of the few players who can claim to have worked at an undertakers before taking up the game. Some might say his style of football has been embalmed from a previous era, but others would say that was just an excuse to make a terrible joke.

Remarkably he has now been a manager for nearly 40 years, starting out at Gainsborough Trinity. His current job at Cardiff City is his 17th. He tends to only do a couple of years, get promoted, then relegated, then he resigns. But he did five years at Burton Albion early on and four at Notts County, who he took into the the top flight from the third tier.

Doesn’t always find favour with fans of other clubs or indeed of his own sides at times, but there’s no doubting one fact: he knows how to get a side promoted, currently holding the record of any manager in English history with eight. What he did for Cardiff last year was, by common consensus, little short of absolutely remarkable.

For all the bluster, it should also be said that his support for Andy Woodward was exemplary after his former player spoke out about his sexual abuse.

“I’ve told him how proud I am of him and I think by his bravery it will open up everything now and it will be a relief for so many ex-players that have been through the same situation.”


Cunning Linguist?
The South Yorkshire accent, with its flattened vowels and downturn at the end of sentences, is perfect for expressing sneering disdain and generally being unimpressed with pretty much everything.

Self-refers a lot in saying something such as “I think he’s absolutely rubbish, me”. When calling into a radio station one always imagines he’s halfway up a hill with a couple of dogs in tow as he always seems a little breathless and somehow distant.

When you combine how he talks with his facial expressions – made by a strangely animalistic visage with a hook-like nose and remarkably well-defined hairline that makes him look like a human buzzard – it’s possible to see everything he does as one big act of Warnockian roleplay in a drama he has written for himself. With arched eyebrows, or at least arched where his eyebrows once were, and a devilish look in his eyes, one is never entirely sure if he’s always being serious. The lack of eyebrows now begins to look like he’s shaved them off to look as though he’s gone absolutely tonto. Doesn’t seem to have to shave which adds to the slight weirdness. On a cold winter’s day, his face often looks like it is carved out of a side of boiled ham. The only manager in the league you could recognise if someone only drew the outline of his hair.

While he has been disparaged by many for decades due to his confrontational nature (the list of ‘disputes’ on his Wikipedia page is hilariously long) oddly enough, in these days of overly cautious media-trained robots who wish to give no hostages to fortune nor invoke a Twitter spat, his brand of blunt talking, too-old-to-give-shiney-shitedness and unreconstructed maleness offers freshness and insight and colour into a stale, bland, corporate world. So much so that he now almost – almost, but not quite – seems very modern and certainly highly original. Even his critics – of which there is no shortage – find themselves reluctantly warming to him.

Loves a standard football nickname. Michael Brown was, of course, Browny. Kevin Blackwell: Blacky. You get the impression that some, possibly the majority of lower-league players, rather like his robust approach and habit of simply shouting at you until you do it right. There’s an art to motivating players and Neil seems to have it. There can’t be anyone who is better at squeezing every last drop of talent out of limited resources. It’d be wonderful to see how he would manage the current Manchester United side, wouldn’t it?

Basically, he’s the only manager who is actually admired for being a massive and relentlessly arsy get.


Media Hit or Miss?
You’d think an outspoken chap would be a huge hit in the media over the years and he’s certainly had his moments, but some must have worried he might go off-piste in terms of language and begin calling a spade a f**king shit shovel. He does have fine form for severe and persistent swearing, such as here:

And this is professional-standard cursing:

However, he can always be relied on for an anecdote or six about players being stupid or having fights with referees. In press conferences recently, he seems to be really enjoying himself and let’s face it, seeing someone grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat improves everyone’s mood.


Proper Football Man Rating: 50%
Very much the alpha male in the room, which all PFMs absolutely must be. Can also be something of a leg squeezer geezer when planted on a sofa, preferably alongside an ex-player that he has managed who he can exchange war stories with. All meat and drink to the PFM. His repeated shouting of “f**k off” at Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo twitches every PFM’s Brexit radar and makes them all put a hand into their longest pocket whilst twitching their lips and making low guttural grunting noises.

Unafraid to physically confront anyone who he feels has wronged him and a wind-up merchant of epic proportions also makes the PFM herd purr. Couple that with a playing career at the dirty end of the stick and all those promotions with unfashionable sides and he really should be a poster boy for the PFMs to genuflect in front of.

But there’s a problem.

You won’t be seeing him out on the drink with Alan Brazil, at a nightclub with Frank McAvennie and Miss Welding Torch and Spanners of 1971, or drinking a yard of fermented hair pomade and screenwash with Reidy.

Also he’s 70 and still shouting at people when he really should just be picking up easy money bitching and moaning about being denied opportunities by foreigners in a middle-eastern TV studio. Why is he still doing actual work? That’s just weird, Jeff.

So he’s maybe too eccentric for the boys. All the ‘driving a tractor and living in Cornwall’ puzzles the PFM. Seems to like to go home to the wife and live the quiet life, whereas your true PFM knows that spending time with women is pointless as you could be with the boys instead, preferably setting fire to some part of Ray Parlour’s body or laughing about not being able to pronounce foreign names.


What The People Say
I got a massive and brilliant response this week. Contrary to what many might think, Neil has got a lot of fans who like his way of going on, recognise his talents as a manager and really rather enjoy the fact that he can be an unreconstructed narky, if very self-aware, old sod. He’s real and straightforward and we all know someone like him. There is great value in those qualities in these days of lies routinely passed off as truth.

‘Accent forged in the belly of West Riding, backbone of raw Sheffield steel, hair impressively stoic as Princess Anne, eyebrows knitted from invisible silk, and the handsome nose of a golden eagle. He may be Wednesday’s nemesis, but for the rest of the week he’s a bloody hero.’

‘After some idiot struck Warnock during a pitch invasion after Bristol City beat Crystal Palace in the 2008 play-offs, in self-deprecating style he said it was a case of “the fan hitting the sh*t”.’

‘I have never liked Warnock… however, I find myself warming to him more and more with every Cardiff match and every post-match interview. I feel a bit unclean now saying that…’

‘Absolute hero among the Cardiff faithful. Came into a club divided by the rebrand and brought everyone together and has us all pulling in the right direction. Atmosphere at games is the best in years and he got us into the Prem unexpectedly. Top man.’

‘He seems to have really cheered up this year. Always thought he was a bit vitriolic post-match but this year he’s joking and laughing all the time.’

‘He seems to have mellowed in his old age and actually comes across now as a lovely bloke. Maybe lack of pressure to survive too.’

‘I love him. Observation is a huge part of coaching and you can see the tactical cogs whirring when he’s watching a game. He’s also an unreal man manager and seems to squeeze more juice out of limited players than anyone else. You’d want to play for this guy.’

‘He’s also a highly effective manager of medium sized clubs that need to get the best out of a small budget. He is also helpful to the media, who are helpful to him in return.’

‘Approached him for an impromptu interview at a charity game. Gave me some brilliant quotes about how my newspaper ‘broke his heart’ as a young player by revealing his release from Chesterfield before he was informed. A very entertaining man.’

‘Was fortunate to work with Neil when he took over at Cardiff early in my career. Not only was he unbelievably polite and generous with his time, he changed the way I saw and thought about the game. Creates incredible unity, makes clubs fun to follow and fun to be part of.’

‘An amazing career, which will never be repeated in English football.’

‘I was in a fair few of his pressers when he was Leeds manager and I always quite liked him: very jovial, knew what we wanted out of him, and (most of the time) much less of a bullshitter than I had expected him to be, even to the point of surprisingly blunt honesty on occasions.’

‘Much more than a football manager. The change in Cardiff has been staggering since he came in. The club was full of conflict, unrest and the team was sliding backwards. Completely re-energised the playing staff and fans within months. Wanted him as manager here for ages. Legend.’


How Long Has He Got?
There’s no doubt he’s very popular at Cardiff City right now. In fact, he’s often popular with the fans of the club he manages. Yes, there is also often eventually a falling out, but the ride to that point is often a lot of fun with Neil. He manages to make you feel like he’s on your side – that he’s always loved the club and the town even though you know it can’t really be true.

He’s 70 years old and has promised to retire before to spend more time on the farm with his missus and tractor, but the game has pulled him back in time and again, so if Cardiff wasn’t his last job, no-one would be surprised. Least of all Neil, his wife or his tractor for that matter. All of which proves that furiously shouting f**k off in front of thousands of people must be very addictive.

John Nicholson