The Nick Townsend Column: He won't be Mr Restraint but Warnock knows he needs to rein in the ranting

Click to follow
The Independent Football

lready the media are drooling more copiously than a pack of obese bloodhounds at the prospect of his impending return to the élite and the promise of some entertaining verbal interchanges on the touchline. One publication described the Sheff-ield United manager as "the most disliked manager in football" last week. "Abusive Warnock faces suspension" was the headline in another following Tuesday night's events at Bramall Lane.

Ah, yes. Tuesday night. Who else but Neil Warnock could have arrived as the proud host of a promotion party and have ended up having his tracksuit collar felt by a member of Her Majesty's constabulary as he was ushered to the stands?

In truth, for all his protestations, he would be the first to concede that the press photo-graphs of him being persuaded to depart the touchline after allegedly directing some of the steel city's more direct industrial language at the Leeds defender Gary Kelly did not make the most edifying spectacle.

So, to the inevitable question, as I caught up with him as he and his wife, Sharon, headed to the capital on Friday afternoon for a House of Commons reception laid on by the "mad Sheffield United fan", and Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn. Is it time for a transformation of image for a manager regarded by some opp-onents as the wind-up merchant supreme and by certain officials as obnoxious in the extreme?

"I think I'll have to," Warnock concedes. "I realise that there are going to be certain officials who like to get a little notch on their gun, so to speak. So I am going to have to be extra-careful and adapt to it. But I think it will help me going up to the Premiership, because the standard of referees there is the best in the world. I think they have an understanding of the game which you don't get at the lower levels."

However, he swiftly adds, lest anyone should gain the erroneous impression that Warnock may be about to reinvent himself as Mr Restraint: "We all have regrets, but I'm not going to change in my enthusiasm, even though I think I'm a marked man in certain situations. Like the other night, I don't think anyone else but Neil Warnock would have been sent off."

Warnock had been riled by Kelly's challenges, particularly a scything tackle on Craig Short. Reportedly, the manager bellowed at Leeds' manager, Kevin Blackwell, formerly his No 2: "I hope he [Kelly] breaks his fucking leg next time." The fourth official, Paul Robinson, reported his words to the referee, Graham Poll, who ordered Warnock to the stand. Police intervention ensued.

The Blades manager will not discuss what he said, with a Football Association charge - by no means his first this season - pending, though he will argue: "Far worse things were said to the fourth official by the visiting bench; not Kevin, but a member of his staff, and about one of the officials, too. That went unpunished, and that's what I don't understand.

"I made a comment about Gary Kelly's tackles and what would happen to him in the future if he carries on tackling like that. [Steve] Kabba's out for the season - he's got a small fracture - and Craig Short will miss Saturday's game because of his shin injury. You ought to see where the stud marks are."

Warnock insists that the fourth official, with whom he has "history", apparently because of a previous incident during a recent match against Reading, has "obviously got a thing about me".

I suggest to Warnock that though he may be justified in his ire it is just possible that he should articulate it in a rather more responsible manner. "Correct," he declares. "Other people are probably a little bit cleverer than me. But I'm not convinced I will be banned."

There could scarcely be more of a contrast with the dry-witted, almost to the point of comatose, Steve Coppell (left), manager of the champions and fellow-promoted side, Reading. Apart from occasionally exhorting his team, he does not tend to engage with his opposite number - except to console him after the game - and accepts refereeing aberrations philosophically.

The suspicion is that, in contrast, Warnock succeeds only in inflaming the opposition and turning officials, subconsciously at least, against his team. "Yes, I think we don't get the rub of the green because of me. But I'm not going to change now," he says. "It just means we have to win a few more games to make up for that."

He adds, with a chuckle: "I asked Steve Coppell how he did it. What he said is that when he gets home, he thumps the wall. There's a massive hole in it. I've really got to try that, I think."

By now Warnock has arrived at Sheffield station, to be greeted by many United followers happy to shake his hand. It was not always thus. There had been moments in recent weeks when it looked as though Watford or Leeds might overtake United. Warnock had been regarded as prematurely triumphalist, just as Neil Kinnock had been in the same city all those years ago. Many rival supporters would have enjoyed his discomfort, you suggest.

"I think if you polled a lot of supporters around the country, a lot of them would like me to manage their team," he says. "I think that's why everybody will look forward to me being there. I don't think the Premiership will be worse for my presence; it'll be better off."

Revere him, or revile him, for once you cannot really argue with him.

Wor Alan can't quell his warrior desire for long

So, like a once-proud warship, battle-scarred and displaying years of wear, Alan Shearer limps into port after his last voyage. This time, no dry dock repairs will suffice.

It wasn't how it was meant to end, with a medial ligament injury the culmination of an 18-year-career in which he gained one championship winner's medal with Blackburn, and almost certainly would have garnered more if he had accepted Sir Alex Ferguson's entreaties. But these 10 years at Newcastle, for all the frustrations such employment involves, have undoubtedly meant more to him. As Shearer explains: "It doesn't matter that I didn't win a trophy, because I did it my way and I lived the dream."

He says there will be no immediate transition to management. Who can blame him for delaying the change of life? At a time when Fulham's Chris Coleman protests that the stresses of the job are affecting his health, why would a relatively wealthy man pitch himself straight into an abyss which is likely to yield as much jaundice as joy?

Yet his remark that he wants a break for "a few years" is a curious one. He would know that even legendary England strikers have a "best before" date if they intend to enter management. And TV punditry is fine, but it can take the edge off any man's ambition. There are too many other aspirational characters reaching the end of their playing careers to simply assume that the kind of position Shearer seeks will simply be in the offing when he feels the time is right. More likely, those "few years" will actually be a few months, by which time he will have completed his coaching badges, and the desire for a challenge will rise within him again.

Something tells you that, despite his comments to the contrary, that opportunity could still arise and be accepted at Newcastle, the city of his birth. It would provide a remarkable completion of a circle decorated with glorious personal achievement.

Comments