Neil Warnock: What I've Learnt This Summer

Neil Warnock's revealing and sometimes hilarious insights into the life of a Championship manager became required reading in The Independent last season. Now, with his side in the Premiership, the Sheffield United manager returns to our pages, beginning with his account of a hectic three months preparing for the big time
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The Independent Online

1. This is the best time ever...

As soon as Sheffield United won promotion to the Premier League I was a popular man. I had every agent on the phone to me.

They all told me the same thing about their player, that he is the best thing since sliced bread, he wants to come to Sheffield United, and to trust them with this information. That resulted in me travelling to six countries in about 12 days, watching an untold number of games, and signing a lad from Preston North End and another from Crystal Palace. On the other hand it has been the most exhilarating and exciting time I can ever remember in football.

As we approach today's game everyone tells me that we could have done with an easier start than Liverpool, even if it is at home, but I think it is a great opener for us. It lets us be aware that we are in the Premier League by merit. It is fantastic achievement that we have come this far in a rather roller-coaster ride over the last few years.

We have changed everything off the field as well as trying to change things on it. We have a brand new corner stand and have brought the roof forward in the away stand so they don't get the weathers. We've even had new Astroturf around the dug-outs so Jose Mourinho can strut his stuff without getting his shoes dirty ­ and me too when my touchline ban's finished.

We've had improvements done to the dressing rooms and the toilets, a new press box, new television accommodation and interview rooms, a new players' tunnel. No area has gone untouched.

We've also sold 21,000 season-tickets, an absolute record which caught us by surprise. We've still been sending them out this week and I just hope by the time we kick off people can forget about all the minor hiccups that we've had and relish the moment.

2. I'm not a friendly person

Personally I'll be glad when it all starts. I'm not really a "friendly" person. I thought I might get a few headlines by saying that so I had better explain that I don't really enjoy friendly games. To judge from some of our pre-season results my players feel the same way. But we've had a very stop-start preparation because of injuries. Everyone seems to have missed a week, or two weeks, and my big money signing, Claude Davis, who cost more than £2m from Preston, misses today's game because he has had a cartilage operation. However, I have noticed as this week has worn on that the treatment room's gone a bit quiet and more lads have said they are 100 per cent as they begin to realise it is not going to be a game to miss.

Who can blame them? As a player I played the odd game when I was not 100 per cent because of the occasion and I'm sure it still happens because games like today, with a full house against Champions' League winners, are things you dream about as a footballer and a manager.

It'll certainly be special for me. Doing the various interviews this week has brought back memories of going in the back of The Kop when I was a boy.

I'm sure my mum and dad would have been proud to see me on this particular day. To support your club as a boy, and go on to manage them in the top flight is like something out of Roy of the Rovers. We had an open day on Sunday and I was signing autographs and I said to some of the lads there: "You never know, you could be manager here one day." People laughed, but why not? It happened to me.

3. Suited not booted is the way to go

Unfortunately I'll be up in the stand today due to the touchline ban which is a hangover from last season. I'm disappointed, I felt they could have shown a bit of leniency, but it was my own fault.

You will have no doubt read that I'll be buying a suit this year. I thought if I wear a suit I might not get in so much strife on the touchline. I ended up buying three. I thought: While I'm still in employment why not? These should last me 20 years which should see me out. Fortunately I'm not a believer in the old "lucky suit" superstition. If I was, and I changed suits every time we lost, I'd need a need a new wardrobe.

4. We're in at the deep end

Someone up there wants me to have a difficult start to my campaign and they must have influenced the fixture list because five of our first seven games are against teams which have qualified for Europe. We've got to play them some time, so we might as well start off with them, but I won't mind if the airport delays continue for a while and a few of them get caught coming back from Europe before playing us.

We play one of the top teams today and I do think that Liverpool, along with Manchester United and Arsenal, will run Chelsea a little bit closer this season. This afternoon I'm going to ask Rafa Benitez if I can loan the other seven or eight players who can't get in his 16, which I am sure will help us qualify for Europe ourselves. But I'll have to brush up on my Spanish first.

5. Seasons don't come bigger than this

This is not just a big season for Sheffield United, but a big season in general. In the Premier League there are a number of young managers just starting. Gareth Southgate is in his first season and Stuart Pearce and Glenn Roeder are relatively new. They are all at big clubs and everyone at this stage of the season is hoping this is the one their particular club has success. For example, we go to Tottenham on Tuesday and I'm sure Martin Jol's team are looking to be top three, let alone top six.

While the public and press have made a big issue of how I must be looking forward to confronting Mourinho and some of the other top managers I am looking forward just as much to pitting my wits against big Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and Paul Jewell, after what they have achieved. I think every one of the 19 managers in the top flight have their own strengths and it is nice to think I am in the top 20 managers in the best league in the world.

I saw a few of the managers at our regional meeting with Keith Hackett, the referees' boss, this week. That clarified a few things including the new policy on injured players.

Now it will be up to the referee to stop play, not for players to kick the ball out. If he thinks it might be serious he'll blow and we'll kick the ball back to the goalkeeper afterwards. That follows what happened at the World Cup which showed all sorts of bad sportsmanship. Some of the behaviour was ridiculous, especially by Portugal.

There is a lot of common sense spoken at these meetings and most managers thought we should adopt the rugby league policy and allow the physio to treat players while the game goes on. But you've got to stay in line with Fifa.

If you believed everything said and written about me you'd think I come out with smoke and fire blowing from my nostrils and that every manager hated me, but there wasn't one of them I didn't get on with. There's a mutual respect and that applies to the fourth officials too. We're at the top level now and they treat you with more respect than lower down when some are after scalps and they treat you like schoolkids.

6. There's not much time to go fishing

We managed to get away for a week but when there is so much to do ahead of the new season you can never really get away from it. I also did a bit of work on the farm but I didn't do much fishing. It's been so hectic. But you have to put the time in like everyone else.

I notice the bookies have us odds-on to go down. Well last year they had us about 10th. Adrian Boothroyd, Steve Coppell and myself will be doing our utmost to prove them wrong.

7. I've got the legs for a kilt

One place I did get to was Scotland as we had a pre-season tour. The day after we played Inverness it was the Highland Games. The lads all asked if I would wear a kilt. I did it properly too, fortunately it was not a windy day!

The funny thing was I was there all day, watching caber-throwing and all that, when I saw two young ladies looking at me. I'd signed a few autographs and these two ladies mimed to ask if they could have their picture taken with me. I put my arm round them, someone took the pic, then I said "do you watch a lot of football?" They answered in a foreign tongue. They didn't know me from Adam, they just wanted a pic of a bloke in a kilt. They must have thought I was Mel Gibson in his Braveheart gear ­ I wish, and so does my wife!

8. World Cup woes

I also went out to Germany to see some of the World Cup games. From an English point of view it was very disappointing. I found myself enjoying watching Italy, France, Germany and Argentina but not England. Hopefully Steve McClaren will change that and he's made a good start. I saw some individual players while I was there but the ones we asked about were beyond our reach, the others, from smaller teams, we felt were too much of a gamble.

One player we had had offered to us before the tournament, but turned down because of the cost of the package, turned out to be the man who scored Italy's goal in the final, then got Zinedine Zidane sent off. Yes, Marco Materazzi. Inter were even prepared to subsidise his wages. Now I see he's got a new deal with them. Can't say I'm too surprised.

9. Must sort out my contract

As well as making a few new signings, I think it was eight at the last count, we've also signed up to longer contracts the players we've already got. Leigh Bromby signed this week joining the likes of Michael Tonge and Chris Armstrong, and we're optimistic Phil Jagielka will commit soon. That will leave just me and Craig Short on one year. It's as if we are both ready for the knackers' yard, but we'll both try and prove people wrong again and I'm sure we'll enjoy doing it.

10. Pressing concerns

One thing I've noticed about the step up is the increased press. I've already had three meetings with the Sunday papers, dailies and electronic media. I've always been accessible but it's half-an-hour each and you have to get on with the other work. I'm going to have to limit things a bit. I'll still be doing this column though, a lot of people have talked to me about it which is great and I'm glad to be back for this big season.

My last time in the top flight: bad goals at Old Trafford, well beaten at Anfield

This is not Neil Warnock's first season in the top flight ­ he managed Notts County in the old First Division in 1991-92, the last year before the Premiership. Mid-table at the beginning of October, County went down with Luton and West Ham. Leeds United won the title under Howard Wilkinson, the last time an English manager did so. Chelsea were 14th, two points ahead of Oldham. Tottenham were 15th, the sixth-placed London club. The season's record transfer was Dean Saunders' £2.9m move from Derby to Liverpool.

"Just being in the top flight was a minor miracle, we'd won the play-offs two years running to get up. Then in our first game we lost one centre-half, Don O'Riordan, and we lost another, Dean Yates, later in the season. Even then we should have stayed up.

"That first game was at Old Trafford against a Manchester United side who came second that season. Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes scored the goals and both should have been disallowed. The crowd had a lot to do with them being given ­ nothing changes. Andrei Kanchelskis had a fabulous debut for them. Alan Paris, our left-back, was given the biggest run around anyone ever got. I saw him a few weeks ago and we had a good laugh about it but it wasn't so funny then.

"We won at Bramall Lane, took four points off Chelsea and beat West Ham home and away, but our best result was a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool. We played magnificent to keep it down to four. We only touched the ball about a dozen times. In the dressing room afterwards I looked at Charlie Palmer (below), our right-back, and said 'don't shout anything like that to me again'. He said, 'What boss?' I said, 'You know'. He said, 'No, what?' I said 'I heard you, you were shouting Help!' Then I said to them all: 'I'm so proud at how you managed to just lose by four.' Craig Short was playing for me then and he still is. He couldn't head, tackle, or pass the ball then. Again, nothing's changed.

"At the start of that season I could have gone to Chelsea but I stayed loyal. I was rewarded when I got the bullet six months after we went back down."

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