NEIL WARNOCK'S remarkable rescue mission at Rotherham United has put him back in the spotlight, writes John Osborne. Just when he thought his long managerial career had run its course, the 67-year-old Blades fan and former Sheffield United boss is again a top target for clubs chasing some of that magic ingredient for themselves.
Oliver Holt, The Mail on Sunday's Chief Sports Writer, in his column for the paper, sheds light on the background to this latest feat. Warnock didn't do it alone. Behind every good man, they say, is a good woman. Wife Sharon, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, has had a big influence on events at the New York Stadium.
Below are Holt's words as they appeared in The Mail on Sunday.
NEIL WARNOCK thought he had retired. He had been a football manager for 35 years and more than 1,000 games and he and his wife, Sharon, were planning the things they had always wanted to do together.
They were going to South Africa to watch England play in a Test match in Cape Town. They were going on safari.
Then, last December, Sharon was diagnosed with breast cancer. They cancelled their plans. In early February, when Sharon was having her third bout of chemotherapy at home near Launceston, in Cornwall, she started laughing with the nurse about how hopeless her husband was at fulfilling the household chores he had taken on while she was recovering from each debilitating stage of the treatment.
“They were joking about how I was getting under her feet,” said Warnock. “Sharon said I splashed too much water on the kitchen floor when I was washing the pots and that I wasn’t making the bed properly. And she said I didn’t plump up the cushions on the sofa before I came upstairs.”
Warnock told her she better be careful, picking on him like that. He said he might be 67 years old but Rotherham United had called again, wanting him to take over as they slid deeper into relegation trouble in the Championship. He grinned and said he might just take it. “Go on then,” said his wife. “Take it.”
She knew how much it would mean to him and how, even after some of the disappointments and disillusion he had endured in his forays into the Premier League, he still yearned for another shot at management.
But she also knew that now she was ill, he would never do it without her blessing. So when he asked her if she was serious, she gave him the same answer. “Take it.” And so one of the most inspiring stories of this enchanted football season began with an act of selflessness.
It was dressed up in black humour and smiles but deep down they both knew it was her courage letting him do this. Later, the club’s fans realised it, too.
That evening, Warnock mulled over what his wife had said. Rotherham were three points from safety and had lost eight of their last 12 games. He knew he would be the oldest manager in the Football League if he took the job. He knew seven of his first eight matches would be against teams chasing promotion. But if Sharon said it was OK, he wanted to do it.
So he met Rotherham chairman Tony Stewart and said he would accept the job until the end of the season as long as he could spend as much time at home between matches as he needed to.
Stewart was delighted. Warnock began work the next day. Rotherham was his 16th managerial job. They played Birmingham that Saturday and drew 0-0. After the game, Stewart sent Sharon a bouquet. They lost the next two games away to Burnley and Reading and fell six points adrift of safety. And then something remarkable happened. Rotherham started to win.
￼They beat Brentford at home and then they beat Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. Warnock, one of Sheffield United’s most successful managers, loved the theatre of that.
It reminded him of the time Reading fans chased him back to his car after a bad-tempered match at the Madejski Stadium. He’d missed the stick rival fans gave him. It made him feel like he was back.
“When our bus arrived at Hillsborough there was a big crowd waiting for us and they were all pointing at me and shouting ‘w*****, w*****’,” he said. “I told the lads to go to the dressing room and I stayed on for a while. I thought I’d make the Wednesdayites sweat a bit. Eventually, I got off and waved to them and said: ‘Thanks for waiting everybody’.”
LOWER LEAGUE MOURINHO
Warnock is the Mourinho of the lower leagues. He is a showman and he is the best. He has led teams to promotion seven times, a feat matched only by Dave Bassett and Graham Taylor.
The miracle he has worked at Rotherham has lifted him clear even of them. He is the greatest lower league manager this country has ever had.
It is his level. He accepts that now. He didn’t feel comfortable in the Premier League. Its cosmopolitan elitism didn’t suit. Warnock relies on earthy camaraderie and old-fashioned humour to build a spirit. In the Premier League, too many players didn’t respond to it. Lower down the pyramid, they do.
“In the Premier League the players have got all the power,” he said. “They are talking to the chairmen and the owners. I don’t think you have players under your control any more. You might think you do but agents have got more power. Players dictate.
“In the Premier League, the players don’t come to play for the club any more. Let“s be honest about that. There is only one reason why they go to a club and it’s not for the badge. It’s for the money. It’s not like that in the Championship. It is old-fashioned football.”
After the Hillsborough win, the results kept coming. Rotherham beat Middlesbrough. They drew at Derby. They won at Ipswich. They moved out of the drop zone. They beat Leeds. They drew at Bristol City. They won 4-0 at relegation rivals MK Dons to go nine points clear of the drop.
Rotherham fans did not forget how this started. They organised a collection for Sharon and raised more than £1,000 which she donated to Cancer Research. The fans also sent flowers. “That is the kind of club it is,” said Warnock. “Those are the kind of supporters they are.”
Rotherham drew at Wolves. The point meant they could not be caught by any of the teams in the bottom three. They are safe. Their 11-game unbeaten run beat a club record that has stood for 35 years. The miracle is complete.
Not surprisingly, Rotherham would like Warnock to stay for another season, but nothing is decided yet. Warnock’s retirement is on hold. No manager has achieved eight promotions and he would love to be the first. Other clubs are circling.
“I thought it would never happen again,” said Warnock. “I thought I“d been put to bed. It’s been a difficult time and this has given me and the family a real lift.”
Sharon still has a course of radiotherapy stretching ahead of her. She wants her husband to do another season, too, so she can finish her treatment and have time to recover. Then, they will go on the cruise they have promised themselves. And the safari. And a trip to Australia.
‘Sharon Warnock, you are a wonderful lady’, one of the messages on the Miller Mad fans’ forum said. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’.