Saturday, June 25 2022

Everyone has to start somewhere, and English football’s oldest manager was no different.

A colorful figure with a decorated CV, he first cut his teeth in the non-league pyramid, and he was not ashamed to bend the ears of Gainsborough Trinity chairman John Davies to an opening.

The 31-year-old has also balanced his podiatry practice while taking his first steps into management.

Stewart Evans became his first-ever signing as manager and his brief appearance at Gainsborough paid dividends for the club, after Warnock successfully negotiated a fee with Sheffield United for the striker, who was ordered to do not play by the board.

“I knew Neil from Rotherham, where I first signed professionally as a schoolboy,” Evans begins. “I was already going to Sheffield United and there was a gap of six weeks before I signed.

“We had a mutual friend called Les Saxton and I wanted to stay fit for those six weeks. Les said, “Why don’t you come to Gainsborough and help Neil?”

“I went against my best judgment because I didn’t want to get injured before going to Sheffield United, but Neil persuaded me to sign a contract to play in the league with Gainsborough.

“The next minute I went to Sheffield United, and Gainsborough had it for him. It was a win-win situation. He would try anything to improve the Club.

Under the Sheffield-born boss, Gainsborough drew record crowds and on the pitch the team made leaps and bounds. His style of play matched the no-nonsense attitude non-league football fans of the 80s demanded.

When he wasn’t training his players at local pubs to play dominoes and darts with the fans to gain support for the club, he was on the lookout for new signings.

And he hasn’t forgotten his roots either. Warnock called in Lincolnshire to visit the club to which he owed so much in 2016. With Gainsborough embroiled in a relegation battle, he headed to the training ground on a cold and wet Thursday evening to give the players a few tips.

After around 20 games in charge of Trinity, Warnock received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Burton Albion chairman Ben Robinson. Little did he know that a decade later he would turn Chelsea down.

Trust in any manager is key, but former Scarborough striker Rob Gauden literally put his life in the hands of the Burton boss when he joined the club as first-team manager six months later.

Warnock’s Burton visited his old stomping ground, The Northolme, when the two horns locked down in the Northern Premier League on a Tuesday night in November 1982, and Gauden fared worse after a poor challenge.

“I went for a tackle with Andy Lodge that left me with a horseshoe cut on my kneecap,” Gauden recalled. “Neil said he knew the local doctor, so after the game I was waiting in this little room with Neil when the doctor came in.

“He tried three or four times to thread the needle and I said to Neil, ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’ and he replied, ‘Yes, it is the best.’ So Neil gave me a towel to bite into, and eight stitches later my knee was now twice normal size!

He laughs: “The doctor went back to the bar and Neil said, ‘I wouldn’t have let him near me.'”

Gauden, who was snapped up for a whopping £500, proved to be worth his weight in gold, scoring the winning goal in front of 10,000 fans in a packed Wembley Stadium in the FA Trophy final – l one of Warnock’s many feats. with the club.

He enjoyed five successful years at Eton Park, but it was at Scarborough that he really made his mark as a manager. Under Warnock, the Seagulls became the first team to win automatic promotion to the League in 1986/87.

“Neil’s cooking pot – either you love it or you hate it,” Evans admits, evenly. “He’s a typical Northerner and a spade is a spade with him. He had a lot of players who went through the game with him and was loyal to them. Once you trust Neil a little, he has you for life.

One such player who stayed with Warnock was Stewart Mell. The Doncaster-born striker joined Burton from Halifax City and when Warnock started handing out whiskeys before kick-off he knew he was onto something good.

“I played under Billy Bremner, the former Leeds captain, at Doncaster Rovers and he knew the game inside out – he was a master tactician – but what he didn’t have was the skills of management of Neil Warnock’s men,” says Mell.

“What struck me about Neil was how brilliant he was at getting the best out of his players. I experienced that in football where sometimes there are little cliques at clubs , but Neil would have none of that.

“He always had a fantastic team spirit. It was like being in a holiday camp. We had a fantastic time but when everyone got on the pitch everyone knew what they were doing. He’s a psychologist and that’s what helps him.

Even now, with seven more to choose from, Warnock still credits his promotion with Scarborough as one of his greatest achievements, ranking alongside the management of his boyhood club Sheffield United and guiding Cardiff City to the Premier League against any expectation.

Top marksman Mell, whose goals returned Scarborough to the League, added: “All of those things helped propel Neil into the positions he’s held since. This was one of his first successful forays.

Warnock took over from Harry Dunn as manager of Scarborough which came as a culture shock for supporters.

The EFL veteran was nothing like his predecessor, who was described as modest, polite and quietly spoken by fans. Warnock, on the other hand, was a different story.

As a youngster, Mitch Cook was something of a blank canvas for Warnock to turn into a new player when he landed the Scarborough job, and even the players couldn’t quite believe their luck when they did. the impossible and reached the promised land.


Artwork: Stephen Taylor

“No one had heard of him when he came to Scarborough,” Cook comments. “I was one of 15 new players he brought in to overhaul the club. At the start of the season we were 60/1 underdogs and ended up being the first team to get automatic promotion to the English League of soccer !

“He created a camaraderie like he does everywhere. You can see it even now. We had parties where everyone had to go. We had 13 1-0 wins in the season. I don’t know how he did it.

The striker, who also had a short stint on the books of Warnock’s last employers, Middlesbrough, has flourished under the manager’s tutelage, with Warnock possessing a knack for when a player needs an arm around him. shoulder, as opposed to the tough love approach.

He adds: “I didn’t have a particularly good game one time and people were shouting ‘He’s useless’ and ‘Take him off.’ He didn’t, so I went up to him and asked him why. He said, ‘One thing you do, Cooky, even if you play shit, you’ll do your best.’

“He said, ‘Every week you’re a six or a seven out of 10, whereas my superstar might be a four out of 10 one week and a nine the next week. It made me feel 10 feet tall and gave me such confidence.

Warnock’s tactics were a little less orthodox at the time and there are even stories that the Seagulls blocked the outside locker room window to listen to team talks or turn off the heating in team facilities opponent.

“Me and a boy called Steve Richards were social secretaries in charge of arranging meetings and taking care of the chat,” Cook recalls. “He came on night outings and there was a fine from the Club if you didn’t go.

“Neil used to go to the board and get £100 if we won the game and they would tell him to get all the guys a drink. He would lure me with Steve Richards and say, ‘ Guys I’ll give you £50 for a drink.’ We thought that was great because we got £50 but years later at a meeting we found out it was £100 £!

Even now, Warnock struggles to stay away from football or, more specifically, the EFL, and whether they want to admit it or not, supporters at each of the 72 clubs are hungry for him.

His passion for the game shines through in his sideline antics, charged personality and lively self.

It is relatable, revered and remarkable. It’s Neil Warnock.


This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of EFL Magazine.


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