Neil Warnock celebrates in 2006 with his promotion-winning battlers
I was watching one of those Neil Warnock half-time rant videos on YouTube the other evening, and reflecting on his undoubted ability as a rabble-rousing motivator. There’s a couple of well-known examples of these online, one during his time at Huddersfield Town when he berated his team while talking passionately about the fans who had travelled miles in the rain to support the Terriers. This was the clip that initially got me enthusiastic when “Colin” was appointed to the Leeds job; in the end, for a variety of reasons, Warnock was the right man at the wrong time for Elland Road, something that is good cause for profound regret.
Because, like him or hate him, Warnock is a winner. In the right circumstances (note that phrase well), he will fulfil the brief of getting promotion; he might not win many friends on the way, but give him the tools and he’ll finish the job. He’s doing it right now at Cardiff City, of all places. Wherever he is, he’s totally committed to success – although a lifelong Blade, his efforts at Bramall Lane were no more fervent than anywhere else he has been successful. He’s fanatically focused on getting the job done, building a team ethic, fostering the right spirit. He’ll do it with the support of the club’s board if he can, without if he has to. Only when the situation at a club is really toxic has he really found a job impossible. Note that phrase, too.
It was impossible at Elland Road for Warnock to create what he eventually created at Sheffield United. Even so, several nominally superior clubs came to Leeds and were slain in one or other of the two Cup competitions, notably Tottenham Hotspur, Gareth Bale included, who succumbed 2-1 to exit the FA Cup five years ago. Warnock had an effect at Leeds, but was eventually stymied by the regime in control, as just about every coach since has been. It’s galling to think that, if he‘d had the cooperation of the people in charge at Elland Road, we might now be a Premier League club. But the evidence is irrefutable. Wherever he’s gone, and been allowed to create his vision, success has eventually followed.
It took him a while at Bramall Lane, but when he got it right, the look of his team at work reminded me irresistibly of Wilko’s 1990 promotion winners. Remember that game against Sunderland at home, when the Mackems kicked off and Leeds had won possession and mounted an attack in the first few seconds? That team hunted the opposition down, harried them, left them nowhere to go and, eventually, overran them, I think it ended 5-0. The 2006 vintage Blades were very similar. The initial clip I’d watched of Colin bollocking his troops at half time led me on to a review of Sheffield United’s promotion campaign. Ironically, that year, they could only muster two 1-1 draws against Leeds; the previous season, when they just missed out on the play-offs, they beat us 2-0 in Sheffield, and absolutely walloped us 4-0 at Elland Road on the 30th anniversary of my first ever game there.
It’s instructive to watch that 2005/06 Blades review video, if you get the chance and can bear it. That team was the very model of a promotion-winning outfit, always at it, giving the other side not a second’s rest. The contrast with what I’ve seen lately from Leeds is stark and horrifying. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to see a fully-committed team in action; even though I’ve got no time for either Sheffield club, this was inspiring stuff. The defenders were grisly hard and completely uncompromising, the midfield was ever-busy, chasing down every ball and tackling like tigers, always with an eye for a telling pass; and the attackers – sharp and decisive, pouncing on half-chances, making channel runs until their legs turned to water, challenging for everything. Home and away, the Blades tide was usually irresistible – and when they did suffer a setback, they invariably bounced back. What would I give to see a Leeds United team perform like that?
Well, I did see it, when I was 28 years younger and had suffered eight years of thinly-attended dross in the old Division Two. Wilko’s Warriors were a team in the Warnock idiom; all of the qualities I saw in that Blades video were there in abundance with White shirts on and, with Strachan, Batty and the dearly-missed Gary Speed, three quarters of one of the greatest midfield fours ever was already in place by the end of that campaign.
It’s fashionable to look back on the Warnock era at Elland Road and deride the man as a failure. But previous history, as well as his subsequent achievements, expose that as arrant rubbish. Make no mistake, if anybody could have succeeded at Leeds, Warnock was that man. He has a PhD in getting teams, some quite unlikely teams, up into the elite. There, it becomes a different ball game, but Colin’s your man to get you to that point – and to pretend otherwise is an exercise in futility. If we really want to see a relentless juggernaut of a Leeds United team – and I think we all do – then someone of the Colin ilk is needed, if not the man himself.
Don’t get me wrong, on many levels I think the man is a disgrace, especially when he lets himself down as he did with the Wolves coach the other week. Although, apparently, he’s a nice enough bloke away from the football. But we don’t need nice, we desperately need some nasty son-of-a-bitch who’s going to motivate a squad of players to perform as a Leeds United side should perform. And for that to work, unfortunately, it’d probably need a sea-change in the way our club is run. How likely that is, I really wouldn’t like to ponder on too much, in case the answer should prove just too depressing.
If we want to see a difference next season – if we really yearn to see a new version of Wilko’s Warriors or even Colin’s Crusaders – then we should be wishing and agitating for change. Because, otherwise, all we’re likely to get is a further helping of the disgracefully dilettante and uncommitted poncing about that we’ve seen, and paid through the nose for, in the campaign now limping to a shameful conclusion.
In short, we need a hero. Maybe we’ll get one, some day. But just who will that man be?