Everyone must start somewhere, and English football’s longest-serving manager was no different.
A colourful character with a decorated CV, he first cut his teeth in the non-league pyramid, and he wasn’t ashamed to bend Gainsborough Trinity Chairman John Davies’ ear for an opening.
The then-31-year-old also balanced his chiropodist practice on the side whilst taking his first steps into management.
Stewart Evans became his first ever signing as a manager and his brief cameo at Gainsborough paid dividends for the Club, after Warnock managed to negotiate a fee with Sheffield United for the forward, who was instructed not to play by the Board of Directors.
“I knew Neil from Rotherham, where I first signed professionally as a schoolboy,” Evans begins. “I was already going to Sheffield United and there was a six-week gap before I signed.
“We had a mutual friend called Les Saxton and I was wanting to keep fit for those six weeks. Les said, ‘Why don’t you come over to Gainsborough and help Neil out?’
“I went against my better judgement because I didn’t want to get injured before going to Sheffield United, but Neil smooth-talked me into signing a contract to play in the league with Gainsborough.
“The next minute, I’d gone to Sheffield United, and Gainsborough got something for it. It was a win-win situation. He would try anything to improve the Club.”
Under the Sheffield-born boss, Gainsborough drew in record crowds and on the pitch, the team came on leaps and bounds. His style of play matched the no nonsense attitude that non-league football fans in the 80s demanded.
When he wasn’t dragging his players around local pubs to play dominoes and darts with fans to drum up support for the Club, he was on the lookout for new recruits.
And he hasn’t forgotten his roots, either. Warnock called into Lincolnshire to pay a visit to the Club that he owed so much to in 2016. With Gainsborough embroiled in a relegation battle, he headed down to the training ground one cold, damp Thursday evening to give the players some pointers.
After around 20 games at the helm of Trinity, Warnock received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Burton Albion Chairman Ben Robinson. Little did he know that a decade later he’d be turning Chelsea away.
Trust in any Manager is key but former Scarborough striker Rob Gauden quite literally put his life in the then-Burton boss’ hands when he re-joined the Club as First-Team Manager six months later.
Warnock’s Burton paid a visit to his old stomping ground, The Northolme, when the two locked horns in the Northern Premier League on a Tuesday evening in November 1982, and Gauden came off worse from a bad challenge.
“I went in for a tackle with Andy Lodge which left me with a horseshoe-shaped cut on my kneecap,” Gauden recalls. “Neil said he knew the local doctor, so after the game, I was waiting in this small room with Neil when the doctor came in.
“He had three or four goes at threading the needle and I said to Neil, ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ and he replied, ‘Yes, he’s the best.’ So, Neil gave me a towel to bite on, and eight stitches later, my knee was now twice the normal size!”
He laughs: “The doctor went back to the bar and then Neil said, ‘I wouldn't have let him anywhere near me.’”
Gauden, who was purchased for a nominal fee of £500, turned out to be worth his weight in gold, netting the winning goal in front of 10,000 fans at a packed-out Wembley Stadium in the FA Trophy final – one of Warnock’s many feats with the Club.
He enjoyed five successful years at Eton Park, but it was at Scarborough that he truly made his mark as a Manager. Under Warnock, the Seagulls became the first team to win automatic promotion to the League in 1986/87.
“Neil’s marmite – you either love him or you hate him,” Evans admits, matter-of-factly. “He’s a typical northerner and a spade is a spade with him. He’s had a lot of players go through the game with him and been loyal to them. Once you get a bit of trust in Neil, he has you for life.”
One such player that stuck by Warnock’s side was Stewart Mell. The Doncaster-born forward joined Burton from Halifax Town and when Warnock began handing out whiskies before kick-off, he knew he was on to something good.
“I played under Billy Bremner, the former Leeds captain, at Doncaster Rovers and he knew the game inside out – he was a master tactician – but what he didn’t have was Neil Warnock’s man management skills,” Mell explains.
“What struck me about Neil was how brilliant he was at getting the best out of his players. I’ve experienced it in football where you sometimes get little cliques at Clubs, but Neil wouldn’t have any of that.
“He always had a fantastic team spirit. It was like being in a holiday camp. We had a fantastic time but when everyone got on the pitch, everyone knew what they were doing. He’s a psychologist and that’s what helps him.”
Even now, with seven others to choose from, Warnock still recognises his promotion with Scarborough as one of his greatest achievements, ranking alongside managing his boyhood Club Sheffield United and guiding Cardiff City to the Premier League against all odds.
Leading marksman Mell, whose goals fired Scarborough back into the League, adds: “All of these things have helped to springboard Neil to the positions he’s had since. That was one of his first forays of success.”
Warnock succeeded Harry Dunn as Scarborough Manager, which came as quite the culture shock to supporters.
The EFL veteran was nothing like his predecessor, who was described as modest, polite and quietly spoken by fans. Warnock, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish.
As a youngster, Mitch Cook was something of a blank canvas for Warnock to shape into a new player when he landed the Scarborough job, and even the players couldn’t quite believe their luck when they did the impossible and reached the promised land.
Artwork: Stephen Taylor
“Nobody had heard of him when he came to Scarborough,” Cook comments. “I was one of 15 new players he brought in to overhaul the Club. At the beginning of the season, we were 60/1 outsiders and we ended up being the first team to get automatic promotion to the English Football League!
“He created a camaraderie like he does everywhere. You can see it even now. We had nights out that everyone had to go to. We had 13 1-0 wins in the season. I don’t know how he did it.”
The forward, who also had a short spell on the books of Warnock’s most recent employer Middlesbrough, blossomed under the manager’s tutelage, with Warnock possessing a knack for when a player needs an arm around the shoulder, as opposed to the tough love approach.
He adds: “I wasn’t having a particularly good game one time and people were shouting ‘He’s useless’ and ‘Get him off.’ He didn’t, so I went to see him to ask him why. He said, ‘One thing that you do, Cooky, even if you’re playing crap, you’ll try your hardest.’
“He said, ‘Every week you’re a six or a seven out of 10, whereas my superstar can be a four out of 10 one week and a nine the next week.’ It made me feel 10-feet tall and gave me such confidence.”
Warnock’s tactics were slightly more unorthodox back in the day and there are even stories that the Seagulls jammed the away dressing room window to eavesdrop on team talks or turn off the heating in the opposing team’s facilities.
“Me and a lad called Steve Richards were social secretaries in charge of organising get-togethers and looking after the kitty,” Cook reminisces. “He’d come on the night outs and there’d be a Club fine if you didn’t go.
“Neil used to go to the board of directors and get £100 if we won the game and they’d tell him to get all the lads a drink. He’d pull me and Steve Richards in and say, ‘Lads, I’ve got you £50 for a drink’. We thought it was great because we got £50 but years down the line at a reunion, we found out it was £100!”
Even now, Warnock struggles to stay away from football or, more specifically, the EFL, and whether they’d like to admit it or not, supporters of each of the 72 Clubs crave him.
His passion for the game shines through in his touchline antics, charged personality and animated self.
He is relatable, revered and remarkable. He is Neil Warnock.
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.