EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Retired Neil Warnock, 73, talks not being liked

EXCLUSIVE: ‘I really DO care what people think of me’: Neil Warnock has ‘retired’ after 1,603 games as a manager but football is yet to release its grip on him as the 73-year-old opens up on not being liked and why job No 17 may be just round the corner

  • Neil Warnock has given an exclusive interview to Sportsmail’s Ian Ladyman 
  • The 73-year-old has just retired after a record 1,603 games as a pro manager 
  • Warnock is colourful, thoughtful and funny company reflecting on his career

Neil Warnock MSSCh sits at a table in a London hotel with a piece of paper in his hand. On it is a list of every club he has ever managed. There are 16 of them. ‘I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any out,’ Warnock smiles.

The MSSCh is a qualification in chiropody. Warnock was decent with his feet as a lower-division winger in the 1960s and 70s. But he was better with other people’s.

‘I trained as a chiropodist and was really good at it,’ he recalls. ‘I had a thriving business in Sheffield while I was managing Burton. The little old ladies had been paying a pound a foot and I charged them six. They didn’t like that but they all came back. It wouldn’t have been a worry for me had I done that for ever.’

Football management eventually walked Warnock down a different path. He is 73 now and veteran of 327 games as a player and a quite staggering 1,603 as manager. That is a professional record.

This was an interview scheduled to talk about his retirement. The very next day, he announced his intentions on television. In late summer there will be a speaking tour taking him to places where they like him and places where they do not. ‘I can’t wait to get to Ipswich and Bristol,’ he says with a malevolent grin.

Only Warnock is not sure he is done with football. Not really. If there was a bet to be placed, the bold money would be on the emergence of a club No 17.

Neil Warnock (pictured) has opened up on retiring after a record of 1,603 games as manager

Warnock came up against Pep Guardiola (left) and Jurgen Klopp (second right) in his career

The Sheffield-born manager with Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and Roy Evans (right) at an event

‘I would say yes it’s over, but only because I am coming to the end of my tether with referees,’ explains Warnock. ‘It’s the worst group I have seen. Do they go home and think it’s all OK? Maybe they do. Me? When I am cutting the grass, that irritation is always there.

‘I am doing all these theatre shows so I am definitely supposed to be retiring. But I can’t get rid of it, whatever it is. My wife Sharon knows. I wanna try to have a bit of time and I will but you never know what’s around the corner, do you?’

Sharon will not be surprised by this. The Warnocks have been here before when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. ‘In my own mind I had finished, then I was at home in Cornwall and Rotherham called me and asked me to help them,’ he recalls.

‘I said it was too far but later on Sharon is having her chemo and telling the nurse, ‘Every time he washes the pots he splashes water everywhere. He never makes the bed or plumps the cushions’.  

‘So I said, ‘I’ll go to Rotherham if you want’ and she said, ‘Yeah, get off up there’.

‘And that was how I came back in again. Had she not said that, I wouldn’t have done it. There were 16 games left and we lost the first two, but we stayed up…’

Now-retired Warnock gave an exclusive interview to Sportsmail’s Football Editor Ian Ladyman

The first day of Warnock’s managerial career came in 1972 when he was playing for Hartlepool. ‘Two urchins knocked on the door,’ he recalls. ‘They wanted me to train them on the green by my house. They weren’t even a team but I trained them like professionals.

‘The next year we entered a league and scored this goal from a rehearsed set-piece and it was like a scene from that film, Kes. I am running up and down the line like crazy.

‘In Sheffield I had a Sunday league team and we would stay overnight before a game. I bought them all matching V-neck sweaters. I realised it was my vocation. How was I gonna get on? I had no idea. I hadn’t exactly played for England, had I?’

Four decades on, Warnock’s C.V. speaks for itself. His eight promotions, a record, started with Scarborough who he brought up from the Conference in 1987. He has worked for clubs as small as Gainsborough Trinity in the Northern Premier and as big as Crystal Palace and QPR in the Premier League.

One of his biggest achievements was taking Notts County to the top flight in 1992. While there he turned down Chelsea. But to many people he will always be most closely associated with his boyhood club Sheffield United.

He spent seven and a half years at Bramall Lane, taking the club to the top division and, earlier, to the semi-finals of both domestic cups. Warnock explains: ‘I was in a Chinese takeaway at Christmas 1999 when (chairman) Derek Dooley rang me and said, ‘Well son, you’ve got your dream job’.

The 73-year-old worked with clubs as big as Crystal Palace (pictured) in the Premier League

But he is best known for a successful seven-year spell at his boyhood club Sheffield United

‘I started crying and drove to Bramall Lane. I looked across at the sign that says ‘The Blades’ and thought about mum and dad. My dad worked 16 hours a day with English Steel. My mum was sick so he looked after three of us kids in a two-bedroom terrace.

‘He would always get home at ten past two on a Saturday so we could get to the game. That Kop looked like Mount Everest. My dad would shout, ‘Boy coming’ and they would pass me down over their heads to the front. I just had to go there that day to have a word, to think about mum and dad.’

Warnock’s public image is combative and combustible. He was a force of nature on the touchline. Our 90 minutes together are peppered with stories of chairmen he fell out with.

‘I got Plymouth up in the play-offs (in 1996) and the next day the chairman said he’d sue the players if they didn’t return their shirts,’ he laughs. ‘One of the players had already given his to his dad! Sometimes chairmen are just jealous that people want to talk to the manager and not them.’

Warnock has a deep well of such stories. But to learn of Warnock’s childhood is perhaps to understand a little of what has always driven him. His mother was crippled by multiple sclerosis and died when he was 13. 

Bullied at school, Warnock was shunted around to relatives and family friends during the holidays. Two men, he believes to this day, attempted to abuse him. From the moment he first kicked a football for Chesterfield as a teenager, Warnock was punching upwards.

Warnock was loyal to trusted players and signed goalkeeper Paddy Kenny (above) five times

Warnock’s bond with Phil Jagielka (right) was clear in a documentary about Sheffield United

‘I wasn’t clever and didn’t want to study,’ he says. ‘I used to get the cane quite a lot. I was nothing really. And I always wondered why it was me who didn’t have a mum. She fell down in the snow while pregnant with me. Someone said that fall brought her illness on and for many years I thought that was true.

‘Everywhere I went from then on I was trying to prove somebody wrong. Managers who released me, chairmen who broke promises. That’s what I have thrived on, even until now.’

In 2005, Warnock’s attempts to win promotion to the Premier League with Sheffield United were filmed for a documentary. The footage is visceral and instructive. His bond with players such as Phil Jagielka and Paddy Kenny is clear, so too is his willingness to push the boundaries.

On the film, Sharon says she understands why her husband ‘isn’t liked’, while his former assistant Kevin Blackwell suggests Warnock ‘doesn’t care who likes him or doesn’t’. But what is the truth of it? Now he has stepped away from the furnace, does he really not care what people think? 

‘No, I think I do care about that actually,’ he ponders. ‘The videos pick up on the worst bits of me and yeah that’s who I was. But when I left the dressing room I didn’t hold a grudge against anyone.

‘Lots of fans have said to me, ‘I didn’t want you to come but I am glad you did’. Players say, ‘You are not what I thought you were going to be’. I like that. I hope that means something about the person I really am.’

On his first day at every club, Warnock would do the same thing. ‘My first session they would all have their shin-pads on,’ he explains. ‘A proper 20-minute game. If someone doesn’t win a tackle it’s a free-kick. If they lose a header or bottle out it’s a free-kick. You know straight away who you want in the trenches.’

Warnock has been thinking of this as he has watched Frank Lampard struggle at Everton. ‘Poor old Frank,’ sighs Warnock. ‘I can imagine him. His mouth dry, wondering what will happen. The pressure of scrapping to stay up is a horrible, lonely feeling. You don’t think you have anybody at all on your side.

Warnock said he feels sorry for Everton’s Frank Lampard, who is struggling to avoid relegation

‘It’s not skill that will keep Everton up now. But a bit of humour can help to take the pressure off. Maybe even give them a bit of time off. Young managers think you have to be on the training ground every minute but they don’t.

‘I remember taking Notts County to play Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon. We won and he asked what I would do the next day if I were him. I said I would take them for a Chinese and have a laugh. Tell them the defeat was a one-off.

‘At Torquay I told my players to report outside a nightclub at 7pm and said nobody could leave before midnight. Had we been on the training ground for five hours it would have killed them but that night helped them gel. Without that bond you will never keep a team up.’

Warnock does not rate himself particularly as a coach but he does as a manager of people. Many of his team-bonding methods were taken from his time as a player under the great Len Ashurst at Hartlepool in the early 1970s.

‘Modern coaches get degrees but you can’t coach what I am talking about,’ he says. ‘It’s man-management and that’s 90 per cent of winning football games.

‘Look at Fergie’s last title at Man United. How did he win the league with that team? I knew they were gonna capitulate without him the next season. It was obvious. It’s not coaching certificates. It’s how you get the best out of people.’

Warnock said the only time he changed his beliefs was with Adel Taarabt (pictured) at QPR

Taarabt (left of Warnock) was instrumental as the West London side got promoted in 2010-11

Equally, everyone has to be flexible on occasion. ‘The only time I changed my beliefs was with Adel Taarabt at QPR,’ he recalls. ‘First day it was hot and Adel wore gloves. One of the coaches told me he would get me sacked.

‘But that first session I just saw his ability. He hadn’t been in the team but I told him he was playing Saturday and if he was s*** I was playing him the next game and the next game and so on. I told him he could save us, whether he was s*** or not.

‘He tended to get the ball off the keeper, nutmeg someone, lose it and we would concede a goal. So I banned him from coming into our half. £50 fine. And I banned anyone from passing to him there.

‘He played for Benfica against Liverpool the other night. Not so s*** after all.’

Warnock never particularly enjoyed match days. There were too many nerves. ‘I could never eat after 10am,’ he smiles. But that does not mean he may not go back to it all.

Currently he is enjoying his time out. It has been too cold to fish in his pond and he is still working out how to protect his ducklings from predators after dark. ‘I think I need some of those night cameras,’ he muses.

As we talk, Sharon is upstairs readying herself for a Friday night dinner in Covent Garden. ‘I love going out with her,’ he says. ‘Coffee, dinner, on our electric bikes.’

Warnock is a man of great contradictions. A lover of postage stamps and amateur dramatics, a family holiday is planned in May and he would like to play more golf and spend time with children William, Amy, Natalie and James.

But the pull of the game, his life, will remain, at least for a while. ‘I know I won’t be able to replace working with players and Sharon knows that,’ he says. 

‘Bloody hell, she has had to put up with a lot but that’s what I was in it for, the players. It wasn’t the games. I preferred it when the final whistle went.

‘I have had eight promotions and I still have reunions at every single one of those clubs. I think that says something. Right now I am on my own talking to the ducks in the garden…’

Warnock’s conversation is colourful, thoughtful and varied. He can be funny, too. But clear themes remain. Stories of referees and decisions not given. Tales of chairmen and handshakes not honoured.

What is clear is that football has not yet released its grip on this bright, intuitive man with letters after his name. Whether it will ever be allowed to will ultimately be down to him. 

Neil Warnock’s Are You With Me? Live Tour will visit the cities that helped shape his managerial career later this summer. Favourite moments, controversial opinions and plenty of laughs. Head to www.universe.com/ecmevents for tickets. 

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