When Middlesbrough kick off their 2021/22 Sky Bet Championship campaign at Fulham on Sunday 8 August, it will mark the beginning of Neil Warnock’s second full season in charge at The Riverside.
The timescale is significant. Of the eight promotions the 72-year-old has masterminded since he led Scarborough into the League in 1987, seven have been achieved within two full seasons of his arrival at a club.
That is just one hallmark of Warnock’s blueprint for success which has been repeated at Notts County (in successive seasons), Huddersfield Town, Plymouth Argyle, Sheffield United, Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City.
The Yorkshireman’s knack for carving out the perfect promotion profile at a new club is hardly formulaic – the longevity of his success alone tells of a man who understands the need to change with the times – yet there are certain threads which tie together an astounding body of work.
A trained chiropodist, who was still cutting toenails in salons inside Debenhams and British Home Stores when he won promotion to the EFL with part-timers Scarborough, Warnock understands the need for a consistent approach.
So, aside from second full-season syndrome, how many of those elements does he have in place at The Riverside ahead of the 2021/22 Championship season?
A trusted number two
Two men stand out as faithful lieutenants in Warnock’s career. During his early coaching days at Peterborough United, he met Posh’s then-assistant manager Mick Jones, who worked alongside Warnock at Notts County, Huddersfield, Plymouth, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, QPR and finally Leeds United. The other is Kevin Blackwell, a goalkeeper under Warnock at Scarborough, Notts County, Torquay United and Huddersfield where he moved into coaching alongside playing the occasional first-team game. Blackwell’s other stops along the Warnock journey have included Plymouth, Bury (where he first became Warnock’s assistant), Sheffield United, Palace, QPR, Rotherham and Cardiff City.
Boro parallel: His position alongside Warnock in the Middlesbrough dugout makes it a round dozen Clubs where Blackwell has either played or coached under Warnock or been his assistant manager. Another long-time aide, Ronnie Jepson, is also on Warnock’s staff at The Riverside.
Like the great Brian Clough, Warnock has been known to trade traditional training sessions for unorthodox team-building sessions if the mood takes him and results follow. At Huddersfield, the usual Friday training was replaced for a few weeks by a walk along a riverbank with the players finding twigs with which to play Poohsticks. At Plymouth, his players’ Friday post-training ritual was to drink raw eggs and sherry. To a man, former players laud his ability to knit them together as one in a common cause.
Boro parallel: Warnock was quick to recognise the burgeoning spirit among his Middlesbrough squad last season. After victory over Swansea in December, he said: “I enjoy lads going through brick walls for me. I get really emotional sometimes when I see that kind of performance. Sometimes they surprise themselves. Our strength is our team spirit and our togetherness. I think it’s been under the surface in some of them, it’s just being able to bring it out of them really.”
Dressing room influencers
A devoted family man, Warnock has always valued players who set an example to their team-mates when it comes to honesty, decency and selflessness. At Crystal Palace, he managed Clint Hill and made the veteran defender one of his first signings when he joined Queens Park Rangers. He often joked that Hill would have made his ideal son-in-law. Hill’s calming presence in the Rangers dressing room was vital as QPR won the Sky Bet Championship title.
Boro parallel: Sol Bamba, a pivotal figure in Warnock’s promotion-winning side at Cardiff, asked to train at Boro this summer after recovering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Warnock readily agreed and has had the 36-year-old mentoring and playing with the Under-23s, offering steady wisdom.
Understanding every player’s individual needs
In his early days at Notts County, Warnock persuaded a lanky 22-year-old midfielder Craig Short to play as a central defender with the words: “I’ve tried you everywhere else, son.” Short went on to play more than 200 Premier League games at the back.
Ronnie Mauge, whose Wembley header earned promotion for Warnock’s Plymouth in the 1996 League Two Play-Off Final, made this observation: “He likes to get players who no-one wants, who are on the scrapheap or have a point to prove. He rounds up all these players and moulds them into winners. If you had £1 in your pocket, he'd have you believe you had £50.”
No player exemplifies Warnock’s genius for taming a wild child better than Adel Taarabt, a laconically volatile playmaker he signed on a permanent deal from Tottenham days before the 2010/11 season. To much incredulity, Warnock even gave Taarabt the captaincy. His reward was a season like none other in Taarabt’s career and under no other manager. Oh, and the Sky Bet Championship title.
Boro parallel: Could Duncan Watmore be Warnock’s latest reclamation project to fire a side to promotion? After two cruciate injuries and being released by Sunderland AFC, Watmore was without a club when Warnock signed him on a short-term contract in November 2020 and quickly replaced it with a longer one. Balancing Watmore’s starts with substitute appearances kept the striker healthy last season and brought nine goals. Who knows what the 27-year-old might do with a full pre-season behind him?
The pantomime villain
Opposing supporters are often heard to claim that Warnock’s world, even in a team game, is centred on him. What they nearly always miss is that he is a master at taking the pressure off his players. By making himself the focus of attention on away days and drawing the rancour of home fans towards himself, Warnock allows his players to escape similar treatment. He has done it throughout his career. One such occasion was the 2008 Championship Play-Off Semi-Final when Warnock’s Crystal Palace were beaten at home in the first leg by Bristol City. Warnock centred his post-match comments on the celebrations of the City players, saying it was as if they won the tie already. When his team walked out for the second leg at Ashton Gate, Warnock deliberately waited a moment before emerging from the tunnel to accept a vociferous welcome from the home supporters. His side was left to play with freedom. They won over 90 minutes to force extra-time and, but for a missed penalty, would have made it to Wembley.
Boro parallel: No manager in the country felt the absence of fans during the 2020/21 season more than Warnock. The Middlesbrough boss will be looking forward already to stepping out at Fulham next weekend. He summed up his love-hate relationship with football fans when he reached the milestone of 1,500 games as a manager last season: “To be appreciated by your own fans is a great, great accolade. Even the people who give me stick – like when I went to Cardiff, the number of people who said: ‘Well if I’m honest, I’ve never liked you, we didn’t want you here, but I’m glad you’re here.’ I really do enjoy that and appreciate that sort of compliment.”
Neil Warnock’s eight promotions:
Scarborough - joined summer of 1986, promoted to EFL 1986/87
Notts County – joined January 1989, promoted to Division 2 (now Championship) 1989/90, promoted to Division 1 (now Premier League) 1990/91
Huddersfield Town – joined July 1993, promoted to Championship 1994/95
Plymouth Argyle – joined June 1995, promoted to League One 1995/96
Sheffield United – joined December 1999, promoted to Premier League 2005/06
Queens Park Rangers – joined March 2010, promoted to Premier League 2010/11
Cardiff City – joined October 2016, promoted to Premier League 2017/18