He has been here before, of course, though it was 15 years ago, with Notts County, when he last traded pleasantries with members of the élite. But that was in a bygone era, before the name Neil Warnock became synonymous with impetuosity and confrontation. Perhaps that was also because it was just before the birth of the Premiership, a league that would be accompanied by the kind of coverage which would bring all of its managers' idiosyncrasies into the nation's living rooms.
Now he has returned, this man of contrasts, who when distant from the game pens poetry and dreams of life with his family in the country, but when anywhere near the field of conflict metamorphoses, almost like a comic-book character, into the bellig-erent bruiser of Bramall Lane.
Chippy, arrogant, antagonistic. Everyone has a word for him. Opposition fans wrap them all up alliteratively in one phrase: "Warnock is a wanker." But suffice to say that the coming of Warnock from the Championship is akin to tossing a still-smouldering banger into a box of fireworks. When the Premier-ship season kicks off on Saturday he will find himself among a bunch of characters many of whom possess a very short blue touchpaper themselves. Who knows what commotion he will create when it all goes off, though for the moment he gives the impression that the welcome from the brotherhood has been almost masonic.
"Yeah, I've had one or two very nice letters from Alex and Jose," Warnock says, as though the Manchester United and Chelsea managers, Ferguson and Mourinho, were regular wine-supping buddies. "That's typical of Sir Alex. I can't remember the last time I didn't get a Christmas card signed by him and his wife. People don't always see a lot of what he does behind the scenes. From a manager's point [of view], he's always there if you need him. He's sort of the godfather to all of us."
Warnock adds: "I respect all those [Premiership] managers, and they know what I've done. They know it's been hard work here. But they know they'll be in for a game. I've had battles with Alex over the years. I remember when I was manager at Bury, we played in front of 50,000 against United in the Worthington Cup, and I got a little bit carried away with myself when it was 0-0 in extra time. Tried to win the game, and put forwards on." He laughs to himself. "We lost 2-0. That might be a little lesson to remember. Yeah, got to remember where you are. That was our cup final, and we'll have a lot of those this year."
He may be on Ferguson's Christmas card list, but it would be fair to say that he is not on everyone's. "People ask me about managers I've fallen out with," he says. "There's only three I totally despise. Most, I have a good relationship with. Of course, I have barneys on the bench. [Alan] Pardew and I had a bust-up a couple of years ago at West Ham. But I thought it was great what he did last season. I respect people like that."
But it is officials with whom the fall-out has been greatest. Warnock spends far too much time in the stands, and not because he admires the architecture. He is banished there for the start of this season, the legacy of an incident in a match against Leeds which culminated in police intervention.
Though the dugout area can be a pit of profanities and over-heated exchanges, he objects when supporters transgress a line of what he considers tolerable behaviour. "Managers should get more protection," Warnock says. "I'm used to 15,000 calling me a wanker. It's going to be 40,000 this year, or maybe 50,000. By all means they can shout things like that, but when people around the dug-out area are saying things about your wife and children it's about time the police or stewards intervened, as they would if it was a racial chant. I've asked the union [the League Managers' Association] to look into that."
Some might contend that he had brought some of that hostility upon himself. "Oh, God, aye," agrees the 57-year-old, who has already revealed that he may swap his familiar tracksuit for a suit in order to enhance his image. "I don't think the perfect, quiet managers get that much abuse. Probably I should stop and think a little bit more. But I'm a bit long in the tooth for doing that now."
This season, he will have other priorities. Having patiently constructed a promotion-winning team, he is determined that they should maintain their status. The embryo of this Sheffield United was created early on the morning of Wednesday 24 November 1999. You can even put a precise time to the conception. The previous night the Blades had been defeated 3-1 at home by Port Vale, in front of 8,965. The manager, Adrian Heath, quit after the game. The chairman, Mike McDonald, had resigned before it.
"The following morning, at 10 to seven, Kevin McCabe [now the chairman of Sheffield United plc] and I were on the phone, speaking about what was happening to our club," he recalls. The outcome was the arrival eight days later of Warnock as manager. "From that, it's become one of the most progressive clubs in the country. Survival would be utopia. But I don't think survival is enough. In fact Kevin McCabe thinks we should be in Europe in the next three years. Yet, that morning when I spoke to him, if you'd have said we'd be in the Premiership six years later, we would have laughed."
He adds: "Very positive person is Kevin. Usually gets what he wants. We're talking about playing in Europe now, but the only chance we had of that when I took over was playing the waiters at Malaga at the end-of-season do. We've come a long way."
True, though United are favourites for only one destiny this season. Relegation. This summer, they have negotiated painstakingly and spent £4.7 million on Preston's Claude Davis and Leeds' Rob Hulse. They have also brought in Mikele Leigertwood, Chris Lucketti, Christian Nade and David Sommeil. Meanwhile, with two openings of Roman Abramovich's vaults, Chelsea have enticed Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko.
Warnock can only envy the spending power with which Mourinho is endowed. "Crikey, I'd like to have £100 million," he says. "But I wondered what Shevenko (sic), I can't even pronounce his name, would be like with Shorty's [Craig Short] right foot up his backside. No, they're going to grace the Premiership. It's all right having money, but you've still got to spend it wisely, and you've got to keep a happy camp. I've got nothing but admiration for him, apart from him being far too good-looking."
He adds: "We haven't been there [in the top flight] for a long time, but our average gate is going to put us in the top 12. We shouldn't feel inferior. We've progressed every two years, with a better squad of players and bringing young lads through, who are now mature... [Michael] Tonge, [Phil] Jagielka, [Nick] Montgomery, [Paddy] Kenny.
"We can't afford the Hasselbainks of this world, but there's no reason why we can't afford them in 12 months' time."
The curious thing is that, despite his affinity with his hometown club, the Blades' own supporters have taken some convincing about Warnock's ability to propel United through that glass ceiling. He recalls the last home game of the previous season, against Millwall. "We lost 1-0, and eventually finished eighth; it was quite vociferous, the chants of 'Warnock out'. My oldest daughter, Natalie, was there, crying her eyes out. But I said to Kevin McCabe, 'We're at a situation where you have to support me now with a couple of million to buy one or two players, or we may as well split now, because if I lose the first five games with this lot, they'll be smashing the windows in the car park'." McCabe backed him and, despite a late blip, promotion was secured.
During the season, Warnock was tempted by the offer from Milan Mandaric to join Ports-mouth, but remained faithful to Sheffield, on a one-year contract, though he concedes that if he and McCabe did part "there's a lot of clubs I've always wanted to manage". He adds: "But I'm not going into the season thinking abut that. I'm going into it to pit my wits against the best, and be talked about for what I'm achieving."
It is a daunting proposition, starting with Liverpool at home on Saturday, the first Premiership game of the day. "I don't think any of the three promoted teams are as good as Wigan and West Ham were when they went up," he says. "They had better squads and more investment. It's how we cope; not when we win one or two games, but when we lose five or six games on the trot, as the promoted teams will. That will be the real test."
After so many years of denial, it is one that Warnock relishes. The journey may be arduous, but for we, his travelling companions, it cannot fail to make for a compelling spectacle.
LIFE & TIMES
NAME: Neil Warnock.
BORN: 1 December 1948, Sheffield.
PLAYING CAREER: 326 games for Chesterfield, Rotherham, Hartlepool, Scunthorpe, Aldershot, Barnsley, York City, Crewe.
MANAGERIAL CAREER: Burton Albion (1981), Scarborough, Notts County, Huddersfield, Plymouth Argyle, Oldham Athletic, Bury, Sheffield United (1999).
HONOURS: Conference winners, Scarborough 1987; Third Division play-off winners, Notts County '90; Second Division play-off winners, Notts County '91; Second Division play-off winners, Huddersfield '95; Third Division play-off winners, Plymouth '96; promoted to Premiership 2006.Reuse content