Neil Warnock: We take on the champions – but my heart will be with Palace at Hillsborough
What I Learnt This Week
Saturday 01 May 2010
The Championship season comes to an end tomorrow after what has, for me and many others, been an extraordinary nine months.
We're finishing in what should be a party atmosphere with Chris Hughton's Newcastle United, the champions, coming to Loftus Road. There's something to play for; they want to reach a century of points, we're aiming to finish in the top half of the table, which will be quite an achievement given we were fighting relegation a couple of weeks ago, but it should be a fairly relaxed afternoon.
But not for me. My heart will be in my hometown, where my old team Crystal Palace play at Hillsborough with relegation at stake. When I think what Palace's players and fans have already had to put up with over this season I find it so cruel that their season hangs on the last game. I guess it was fated but it is so sad, it could have been a season of celebration. When Palace were put into administration we were on the brink of the play-offs with momentum behind us.
If the bitter taste administration leaves in your mouth was not enough to put up with there was Freddie Sears' "ghost goal" at Bristol City in August. The number of times I thought about that during the season. To this day I still can't believe four officials all missed the ball going in the middle of the goal. That would have been the opening goal: in the end we lost in the last minute. One point from that game and Palace would now be safe.
Sheffield Wednesday are at home, so are slight favourites, but as I remember from being manager of Sheffield United when we played Wigan on the last day of the season with relegation from the Premier League at stake, having all those thousands of supporters behind you brings it's own pressures. The one thing you cannot question about the Palace lads is their commitment to the cause. If they come out of it with their status intact it will be an escape Houdini would have been proud of.
2. Pearson and Holloway have both worked wonders
Newcastle are my Championship team of the season, but while Chris has done a great job there – it could so easily have gone the other way – I have to say Nigel Pearson and Ian Holloway are my managers of the season. They have worked wonders at Leicester and Blackpool.
Newcastle provide the best players: Kevin Nolan, for his goals from midfield, and Jose Enrique, who has really come on. I expect him to do well in the Premier League. The best goal scored against one of my teams was by a Newcastle player, Ryan Taylor, who came inside and whacked one in the top corner at Selhurst Park. The best scored for me was by Darren Ambrose: his free-kick against Aston Villa.
The best performance was by QPR at Palace, especially in the circumstances, and I don't just mean mine: the team needed points after seven games without a win. The worst performance by a mile was by Palace at home to Scunthorpe in September. We lost 4-0 and I thought about walking away afterwards. Simon Jordan talked me out of it and we then went on a good run, only losing one of the next dozen games.
My most inspired decision was playing Danny Butterfield up front against Wolves in the FA Cup. Everyone thought I was mad, he was shocked himself. It led to the most exciting moment of the season when he scored a six-minute hat-trick. Moments like that in football are few and far between. He will never surpass that for the rest of his life – he's not scored before or since all season. When he got his third he didn't know what to do and his smile was something to behold.
The most difficult decision was at Doncaster in February. Lee Hills, who was only 19 at the time, came on as a sub in the first half because Claude Davis was injured early on. At half-time we were losing and all over the place. I realised I had to change things tactically and Lee was the fall guy. I said to him, "Lee, I'm sorry son, I don't how to tell you, but I'm going to have to sub you." We got a draw, so it was justified. The worst decision? I refer you to the officials at Ashton Gate.
The best trip was Plymouth as I had four days at home, and three points as well. I'll miss Plymouth being in the Championship more than any other club for purely personal and selfish reasons. The worst trip was Newcastle. The flight was fine, it was turning the phone on when we landed and finding out we were in administration. I was so proud of our performance, on another night, with better finishing, we could have beaten them. Then reality set in. Instead of being a point off the play-offs we were a point above relegation.
3. Jose's celebration was great. You have to admire him
I know the locals weren't happy but I liked Jose Mourinho's celebration at Barcelona. It's great to see a bit of passion and he was bound to be emotional after such an achievement, especially with all the other things that were going on with the attempt to arrest Samuel Eto'o for allegedly not paying his taxes, and the fireworks going off all night before the game at Inter's team hotel. He won a great battle tactically against what everyone believes is the best team in the world and you have to admire him.
He revels in being underdog. It is ironic, and maybe telling, that he won the Champions League with Porto but not with Chelsea when expectations were far greater. You need some luck though, however good you are. That last-minute handball against Yaya Touré was harsh. It's not what you know, it's who you know upstairs.
Jose does set out not to get beaten, rather than to win. That philosophy can succeed in cup competitions but those Arsenal fans I hear on the radio who say they'd have beaten Barcelona if he was their manager should think about whether they would really want to watch it every week. That said, you need a balance, and I think this year Arsène Wenger will look to try and strengthen one or two areas with British-type players. I'd love to see him do that. I remember recommending Phil Jagielka to his scout. They didn't follow that up but I think even Arsène knows he needs that type of player now.
While on Europe, congratulations to Fulham. What a fantastic achievement. It only seems a few years ago they were in the Fourth Division. Mohamed al Fayed deserves a lot of credit for what he has done there.
4. William plays a straight bat – just like Boycott
It's been a good week weather-wise, so I've had plenty of cricket practice with William. He played his first cricket match for his new school yesterday and hit two fours and got a run-out.
I'm really looking forward to his cricket this term. He's got new whites as we've misplaced the old ones in the move. I love watching him play cricket. Even at that age you can see he's from Yorkshire with his straight bat, a Boycott bat. The only difference is Boycott could resist a ball that bounced, whereas William has to have a go at every ball – to his undoing. I'm thinking about volunteering to umpire for the school team. Then he would stay in longer.
At Palace I enjoyed watching Kent play, and I see they are playing a home match at The Oval this year I might be able to get to. I've also been told Middlesex are playing a Twenty20 match at Richmond, which is my local ground, so William and I will be aiming to go to that even if I've never been sure about the pink strip.
5. My players have got guts, but I'm the gaffer
At the end of training on Thursday I asked all the first-team squad to lay on the floor on their back, next to each other. They all wondered what was going on. Then I walked across their stomachs with my boots. You could tell who did abdominals and who didn't. But I took it easy, taking the weight off some. When I finished they jogged away laughing and a few said: "You should have walked without stopping, boss." I said: "Right, back here now, we'll do it again." This time I walked across without mercy. I really enjoy being the gaffer.
6. Try this vote winner, Gordon: abolish homework
We were talking about the election at breakfast yesterday and William said they are having a mock campaign at school. Three lads are standing. "Who are you voting for?" I asked. "That's easy," he replied, "the one who is going to ban homework". Now there's a vote winner.
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