Neil Warnock is sitting at an outside table at a Champneys resort in the countryside near Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Behind him, guests are lying on sun-loungers or padding around in bathrobes in the heat of the early afternoon. Now and again, one of them gets up and disappears inside for a massage or a spa treatment.
George Best spent some of his final years in one of these retreats that feel as if they are marooned somewhere between dated hotel and upmarket care home. It seems like yesterday in here and it makes Warnock feel uneasy. It’s the kind of place where his undying energy strikes a discordant note.
He will be 70 in December and it is 38 years since he sat down at an oak table in the boardroom at the Northolme and was interviewed for the job as manager of Gainsborough Trinity in the Northern Premier League but he is not ready for the quiet life just yet. The truth is that he is the type of man who will never be ready for the quiet life.
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock talked to Sportsmail’s Oliver Holt about the season ahead
Once, a few years ago, he thought about retirement. But he and his wife, Sharon, realised instinctively that he would wither without the game. So she sent him back out on the road and last season he carved out his own place in English football history by winning a record eighth promotion, taking Cardiff City back to the top flight.
He wanted that more than he has wanted anything in his career and he is happy for his record in the lower leagues to define him. But there is one last thing: he has managed three times in the Premier League — with Sheffield United, Queens Park Rangers and Crystal Palace — and each spell has ended either with relegation or the sack. If he can keep Cardiff up this season, it will eclipse all he has done.
It is a sweltering day in this constant English summer and there has been a problem with the air-conditioning in the rooms where he and his Cardiff players have spent a chunk of their pre-season. The problem is there isn’t any. Warnock laughs about that with the cackle he reserves for moments when he wants to express amusement about some form of adversity.
Warnock considered retirement a few years ago but realised he would wither without the game
Today, he cackles a lot. Like when he talks me through Cardiff’s early-season opponents. ‘Then we hit September,’ he says. ‘Arsenal at home, Chelsea away, Man City at home. When the fixtures came out, they asked me what I thought about that run. I said, “To be honest, I can’t see us getting more than seven points out of those three”.’
Like when he says how much he admires Jurgen Klopp and his infectious enthusiasm for the game. I ask him if he’s looking forward to meeting the Liverpool manager when Cardiff play at Anfield on October 27. ‘I don’t mind meeting him,’ Warnock says. ‘It’s playing them that I’m not really looking forward to.’
And like when he talks about some of the dazzling individual talents his team of underdogs may face as their season back in the big time unfolds. ‘Even I look at some of the teams and purr,’ he says. ‘De Bruyne: oh my God. When I watch Hazard, I am thinking, “Come on Real Madrid, buy him, for God’s sake”. When I watch Willian, I think, “Come on Barcelona, what are you doing?”’
Last term he created own place in English football history by winning record eighth promotion
Beyond all the self-deprecation and the jovial prophecies of doom, Warnock is raring to go
Beyond all the self-deprecation and the jovial prophecies of doom, the truth is that Warnock is raring to go. He has been an underdog his whole life and for 40 years in management, from the moment he first took charge of Todwick in the Sheffield and District Sunday League in the winter of his playing career, he has been nourished by the doubts and the sneers of others.
He has lived a full life in football. Not a life that has been handed to him but a life he has carved out for himself. He collected the 50p-a-week subs at Todwick and took the kit to the launderette. At Gainsborough Trinity, he made his players take on the local pubs at darts in a publicity drive. He has taken teams to Corby Town and Wootton Blue Cross. He is steeped in our game.
When he took his first official managerial post at Gainsborough in 1980, he combined it with working as a chiropodist out of premises at 291a Sheffield Road in Tinsley. ‘When I stopped making my living with my feet,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I started making my living with other people’s feet.’
He has managed three times in top flight and each spell has ended with relegation or the sack
From Gainsborough to Burton Albion to Scarborough to Notts County to Huddersfield Town to Plymouth Argyle and onwards and upwards, he made his reputation by proving others wrong. If he does it again this season by keeping Cardiff City in the Premier League, it will, he says, be the greatest achievement even of his life in English football.
‘The idea of taking a club up and keeping them up absolutely drives me,’ he says. ‘It would be the biggest achievement in my life by a mile. If I fail, so what? I’ll give it a go and then the club can do what they want. I’ll give it my best shot.’
Summer recruitment has consisted so far of four buys from the Championship: Josh Murphy from Norwich, Bobby Reid from Bristol City, Alex Smithies from QPR and Greg Cunningham from Preston. Warnock is trying to avoid mistakes of the past by sticking to what he knows and sticking to the type of player who responds to him.
Cardiff, who defied all expectations last season by securing automatic promotion, will have the lowest wage bill in the division, almost half that of Huddersfield Town, for instance. Amid their rivals to avoid the drop, they have spent less in the transfer market than any other side bar Watford. It is no surprise, perhaps, that the bookmakers have installed Warnock’s team as firm favourites to finish bottom of the table.
His team have been installed as firm favourites to finish bottom of the league next season
Warnock loves that. It is what he wants. It is what he is relishing. ‘I’m looking forward to the challenge,’ he says. ‘Last season, everyone wrote us off before a ball had been kicked and said we were going to finish bottom half and yet they were brilliant. Now, we have to step up another level and we know it’s going to be difficult.
‘We are trying to do it on a miracle. We have got to try and embrace the fact that nobody gives us a chance. Going back to my Scarborough days, we had 17 new players and we were heavy favourites to go down and we ended up winning the league. We’ve defied expectations at this club before and we’re going to have a real go at doing it again.
‘Mehmet (Dalman), the chairman, and Vincent (Tan), the owner, didn’t want to overspend this summer and I said I was happy with that. I said I’d try and build the club sensibly so that if things didn’t work out, they’d have a better base for the longer term. The fans here have been brilliant with me and this is about more than just this season. It’s about building a base for long-term success and I’m delighted the club has got permission for a new training ground.
‘The one thing we are assured of is 30,000 at home and an intimidating atmosphere. They have really come on board, the fans. I don’t think their expectations are going to be stifling. We will do our best and I think there’ll be some excitement. We are on telly already three times at home. There are always goals when the cameras come. It’s not always us scoring them but there you go.’
He will be 70 in December and it is 38 years since he was interviewed for Gainsborough Trinity
Warnock defied the odds by leading Cardiff to the Premier League – his fourth promotion there
Even if the Premier League has not been kind to him, he has fond memories of it. There is the obligatory one: sitting in Sir Alex Ferguson’s office at Old Trafford after a game, drinking a glass of red wine and chewing the fat.
But his mind also drifts back to a barnstormer of a game at Bramall Lane when Sheffield United beat Arsenal 1-0 on a filthy night in December 2006 and the away fixture at the newly opened Emirates earlier that season.
‘When we went to the Emirates the first time in September 2006,’ Warnock says, ‘I was in the centre circle with Arsene Wenger. And he’s a big lad, isn’t he? I was looking up to him. I said to him, “Look at the dugouts, they’re miles away from each other. You’ll not hear me today”. And he just looked at one dugout and then the other and then he looked down at me and he said,“You will find a way”.’
He shakes his head when I ask if he had ever thought about handing the reins to someone else once he had secured promotion with Cardiff and moving on to another club that needed saving and rebooting. When you have been in management as long as he has, there are always precedents and the situation he faces now is the same as when he turned down the chance to move to Chelsea when he had won promotion with Notts County in 1991.
Warnock has fond memories of the Premier League including Sheffield United beating Arsenal
‘I had inquiries from a Championship club in the summer,’ Warnock says, ‘and I suppose in some ways it would have been easier for me to leave. But I didn’t leave Notts County when I was there because I loved the players and the players had done everything for me and I didn’t feel like I should let them down.
‘It’s the same situation now. This season, the best chance this group of players have got is me staying because if a new manager came in, I think the spirit would change and they would lose what has made us good. The only chance we have got is our togetherness.
‘I thought it was important that we didn’t dilute the spirit with the summer signings because it’s the spirit that has got us where we are. They deserve a chance, these lads. Look at (Nathaniel) Mendez-Laing, who came from Rochdale. (Neil) Etheridge from Walsall, the goalkeeper, a free transfer. Sol Bamba was nowhere when I picked him up, Junior Hoilett couldn’t get a club. They have all got something to prove. They are all like me.
‘If ever they wanted to sack me, I’d be happy with that. I’d get another job and try and get my ninth promotion. So that wouldn’t worry me. It’s unusual because I don’t actually know where the club would go if they sacked me. You can’t change what we’ve got in the dressing room.
‘The fans are on board. On the forums, they are saying, “If we go down, we go down, and then Warnock will be the best one to take us back up”. If it were the opposite and there were hatred, if the fans turned in October or November, I’d walk away. I wouldn’t want to do it if the fans weren’t on board.’
He added: ‘I don’t know who would replace me. I don’t mean that in a big-headed way. It’s just that we are what we are and I’m not sure anyone could get more out of these players than me. We have got a good group. We will entertain but we will have bad runs. Unless you are in that top group, everyone will have bad runs now and again.
‘The fact is that the only chance I’ve ever had of managing in the Premier League is by taking a club up so I understand you’re going to be up against it because all my teams have been up against it.
‘But when you ask if I’m apprehensive, well, I looked at the fixtures and I thought, “Where would you rather go — Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge or Deepdale on a Tuesday night?” We got battered at Deepdale last season. We got battered at Bolton, too.
Warnock has lived a full life in football but is excited about the new campaign with Cardiff
‘I’m not knocking Preston and Bolton but when I look at our fixtures this season, I’ve got a big smile on my face. I’m looking at them and thinking, “Bloody hell”. We’re playing at Tottenham’s new stadium in their second home game there. It’s like a fairy tale really.
‘What I’m looking forward to the most is 10 to five when the whistle goes and we have won our first game in the Premier League and then going back to my own room, having a shower, sitting down and taking it all in. That evening will be the best evening of my life, football-wise, because I will be doing it with this club and I know how far we have come.’
Around the other side of the hotel, a couple of Cardiff players are sitting by a lake, dangling fishing rods into the cool water. ‘It’s a lovely spot,’ says Warnock. ‘Hey, why don’t we take a photo out there later with me fishing. I can see the headline already, “Pressure? What pressure?”’