AWARD-WINNING WRITER JAMES LAWTON PENS A GUEST COLUMN…
Every man has his limits and Neil Warnock rather charmingly defined his own this last week when he withdrew his name from the Sheffield Wednesday short-list.
In some eyes he will always been a football ogre. Yet those who know him well enough have a more rounded picture.
They can separate the extremes of his competitive nature from both a deep-running passion and an intelligent awareness of the world beyond the touchline and they will not be too surprised that, after some brief agonising, he said no to the Rip Van Winkle club of English football.
“I think it’s time to put myself to bed,” said the 65-year-old who has a young family and, given the furies of his football past, an understandable desire to impart to them some of the values that can so easily go missing in the desperate, day-by-day survival needs of the modern game.
Some of those who have felt the wrath of Warnock, and maybe not least the celebrated sports columnist who regularly criticises him so vehemently that you have to wonder how he would react to the arrival of the Anti-Christ, may dispute this assessment of a fero- ciously committed football man deep in the autumn of his career.
However, they can hardly dismiss the maturity of his reasoning when he decided against a return to his old Sheffield battleground.
It would be too divisive, he concluded, remembering his years down the road at Bramall Lane and just some of his disparaging remarks about the sleeping giant at Hillsborough. Sleeping, did we say? Perhaps comatose might be more appropriate.
Warnock knows his old town – and his old game. He also knows his own value as a superior trouble-shooter.
Unfortunately, it did not make, he decided, a neat equation and for much travelled owner Milan Mandaric there might, rather late in the day, be something of a lesson. He bought the club which should still be among the elite of the land for a pound and its debts. What is still to be acquired, plainly, is a clear vision not so much of how you recover something of a squandered past but some clear sight lines for the future.
What Mandaric clearly saw in Warnock was a forceful response to still another crisis, which might well have carried the club away from another scandal of relegation.
But, really, where would that have left arguably the most mis-managed (in the widest sense) football club in England. A founder of the Football League, a winner of three titles, a recipient of deathless loyalty and with a still potentially huge fan base, Wednesday is nothing so much as a great monument to epochal neglect.
It can also claim part of one football’s greatest ironies, the knighthood of their former chairman Sir Davie Richards. He still walks along the administrative peaks of the game and it would be wearisome to list all of his roles in England and Europe beyond his chairmanship of the Premier League and his membership of the FA Board. At Hillsborough there can only be a recurring shudder at the citation of his knighthood: “for services to football”.
Wednesday, of course, cannot re-invent their past, only something which reflects a little less hauntingly the extent and the misery of their decline.
Warnock may have galvanised the relegation fighters but it is to his credit that he saw all the distractions, including the animosity and the compromise required of himself after a life-time of emotional attachment to the Blades, his appointment would have brought.
There will always be diverging views on his career but he has always been worth the trouble. He was seriously short-changed at Queens Park Rangers, faced a formidable number of demons at Leeds United, another club which lost the foundations of its old success, and was absolutely right to rail against the injustice of the relegation of the Blades at the hands of a misbehaving West Ham United.
Also for the record… however outrageous some of his behavior at Bramall Lane, none of it matched the brutality displayed by his gentlemanly predecessor John Harris, the former Chelsea defender.
Harris was once so inflamed by the roughhouse tactics of his Everton opponent, and future manager of Sheffield Wednesday and Everton, Harry Catterick, he delivered the most ruthless of retribution. In one penalty area scuffle he noticed that just below the neckline of Catterick’s shirt was an extremely large and angry boil. Soon after he took the chance to ram down his elbow on the vulnerable spot, sniffing: “Take that, you blighter.”
Years later, Harris went on to be a lay preacher. This might, for all his recent virtue, be asking a little much of Neil Warnock.
WALKING IN DEAD MEN’S SHOES
We have some avuncular words from England manager Roy Hodgson in his role as president of the League Managers’ Association.
Deploring this new killing season for struggling managers, he declares: “I can’t suggest that I’m anything other than disappointed or concerned for all the guys losing their jobs. If they falter only slightly off the path there is a big temptation for the owner to say another manager might just alter our path.”
This is all plain enough, Roy, but rather more relevant is the question of when the LMA might just get round to drawing up its own code of conduct. One that, for example, prevents members diving into jobs while the bodies of the fallen are still warm – and contractual obligations still unresolved.