So is the big league ready for the ways of Neil Warnock?

First Division play-off final: Mr Belligerent of Bramall Lane moulds his misfits into an irritating, intimidating force

In the Bramall Lane boardroom, the features of William Frederick Beardshaw (1857-1936), "founder member of Sheffield United FC", peer sternly from a canvas. Is it your imagination, or do the eyes possess a touch of incredulity? Perhaps not. Still, you do wonder just what he would have made of Neil Warnock, the former chiropodist who is now rather more practised at bruising toes, as he strides purposefully into that inner sanctum clad in stripey golf shirt, shorts and trainers, and clutching a bottle of sports drink.

Since being formed originally by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, United have employed their share of the great and good - Arthur Rowley and Dave Bassett come immediately to mind - and the indifferent. But none quite like Warnock, who speaks with steely-eyed conviction about his team of "misfits" who have a favourites' chance of reclaiming the club's position among the élite in tomorrow's First Division play-off final. Should they prevail, he will be entering that exclusive fraternity proudly bearing his own branding: nonconformist.

It would be fair to say that reports of United progressing to the final after that extraordinary semi-final against Notting-ham Forest were not greeted with a unanimous exhortation of joy within the Premier League.

There is something of Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction about the man from Sheffield, who has his own way with the thrust of a verbal blade, with a definite serrated edge. This is football's bunny-boiler, whom Premiership managers thought they had seen the last of when his club were eliminated from the FA Cup by Arsenal. Just when they thought they were safe to continue with their lives of exclusivity, the spectre of Warnock appears, shocking the lot of them by rising to the surface of their bathtub.

What is difficult to define is whether he perfects his eccentricity with the same attention that he gives to his hair and appearance - or is he a genuine, instinctive, 24-carat oddball? One suspects the latter, but also that he rather relishes the profile that reputation offers him.

But could Warnock be persuaded to alter his abrasive, confrontational manner should the Premiership beckon? "No," he responds dismissively. "You might say, 'Eh, he's a big mouth', but you've got to be passionate, haven't you? If you aren't, you very often don't win. I think if you're successful you haven't got that many friends, have you? You don't really want them, either. Look at Sir Alex [Ferguson]. Dearie me. He isn't bothered about friends, is he?"

Well, the Manchester United manager might just take issue with that, but that's Warnock for you; he doesn't take the head off the bird, just gets it sqawking angrily with a ruffling of the feathers, though he protests: "Eh, you'd think everybody in the whole world hated me. It's only three managers who hate me, and I can't stand them either. It's just that they wrote about it and I kept quiet, but there'll come a time..."

Those who stand condemned definitely include Burnley's Stan Ternent. West Brom's Gary Megson is another after that infamous occasion when United had three players dismissed. However, Warnock claims that Gérard Houllier is not on the blacklist, despite the Frenchman's accusation, after the first leg of their Worthington Cup tie, that United were over-physical. "I spoke to Gérard after the game and he was really complimentary [about Sheffield United]. I just don't think he'd come up against a Neil Warnock before in the Premier League."

He can say that again. There was also the small matter of Warnock comparing, none too diplomatically, the relative costs of their teams. "I was not being disrespectful to Gérard when I pointed out that our total wage bill of £3m is the equivalent of one of their top players," he explains. "It puts things in perspective about what we've achieved in reaching the semi-finals of two cups. You've got to have a great dressing-room to do that."

Even those who denounce him as bombastic, self-satisfied, or worse, cannot dispute that the manager who scuffed around the mean streets of the game before arriving at Sheffield United in December 1999 has produced a team who might just prove more than an irritation in the Premiership. "Yeah, they're my misfits," he says with the pride of some latter-day Telly Savalas referring toThe Dirty Dozen. "It's probably one of the most satisfying parts of the job. Forty-two grand for [goalkeeper] Paddy Kenny. I know he don't look the part, shape-wise. But keep feeding him burgers, eh? If he had a perfect shape he wouldn't just be the best goalkeeper in the Republic of Ireland but in this country."

Warnock adds: "I look at Paddy, and [Philip] Jagielka, and Stuart McCall. Now nobody would have thought about taking him [from Bradford]. He knows that and I know it. There's Michael Tongue and Michael Brown, who cost 350 grand. He'd been bombed out of Manchester City when I took him, yet he'll never have a better season. Robert Page [the team captain, signed from Watford] the same. Then there's Jon Harley. He was a wreck and ended up returning [to Fulham] a Premier League player. There's John Curtis [on loan from Blackburn] and people like [Mark] Rankine, who couldn't get in Preston's team. If he could only put his feet the right way he'd be a hell of a player. There's Rob Kozluk [England Under-21 defender], an absolute nutcase. But you need people like that."

Warnock maintains that if United fail tomorrow the club will still be "around £1.5m short". It could mean five or six players, including the highly regarded Brown, departing. "You're almost starting again. When you see something that's there and so close, it's hard not to feel frustrated." Nevertheless, United would accept defeat stoically. For Wolves, so close to bridging the abyss on many occasions, it would be hard to take.

"When we drew with Wolves 3-3 here, I said, 'Hope we see you at Cardiff, Dave'," recalls Warnock. "I wasn't being funny, either. I've had a lot of time for Dave [Jones] since his Stockport days."

He adds: "D'you know, I kept him in the job there. They hadn't won a game when we played them one year. I had fallen out with my own chairman at Plymouth. There was a dispute about staying overnight at hotel in Manchester and what we could spend. I said, 'OK, we'll come up the day of the match then, like a pub team'. That's what we did, and we got hammered 2-0. It was his first win, and he never looked back. He was close to getting the sack, so he does owe me. He went on to better things; unfortunately, I never got the opportunity. Still, you never know; Batesy [Ken Bates] might still want an Englishman some time."

He rejected an offer from Chelsea in 1991 and, while not regretting it, is clearly a man with much still to prove, although precious little time to do it. "I've got other things to do," he says. "I've got two young children [Amy, five, and William, two]. My first two kids, James and Natalie, I didn't see an awful lot of growing up. With these two I'd like to read them a bedtime story and take them to school in the morning. That sounds bloody stupid, doesn't it, for Neil Warnock?

"So, yes, I think I've got a couple of years left; any more and it would kill me. And I do want to pit my wits against the Wengers and Fergusons in the Premiership. Do it with a bunch of misfits, and one or two other misfits coming in. Hopefully, stabilise us in the Premiership. Then would be a nice time to go, wouldn't it? I'd always be well thought of."

When you strip away the effrontery which, at times, so affronts his peers, this is essentially what drives Warnock, the Premiership wannabe who is on the cusp of entering Bramall Lane immortality.

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