Warnock on a war footing

Norman Fox charts the journey of a nomad noted for slaying giant- killers
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The Independent Online
IT IS the time of year for romantically optimistic headlines: those that suggest some unknown but deadly striker who works in the local abattoir is about to slay a giant in the FA Cup.

Kingstonian of the Icis League have a strong reputation for questioning the credentials of their supposed superiors. Third Division Plymouth Argyle, who today visit Kingstonian with a television audience looking on, are not exactly giants but are in an unusually good position to ignore all the David and Goliath stuff and get on with plans for the much more lucrative third round.

In spite of scoring five goals against Wisbech in the last round and having a manager, Billy Smith, who is among the growing number of converts to the idea that semi-professional football these days is hardly distinguishable from that played in the Third Division, Kingstonian are in obvious danger of becoming another of Plymouth's non-League Cup victims. Slough Town were dismissed 2-0 in the first round, albeit with a little help from a spectacular own goal. Last year they beat Kettering; the previous season it was Marlow.

Smith is unimpressed because at various clubs he has a record of producing a succession of outstanding players, not least Ian Wright, who was with him at Dulwich Hamlet. He claims that several of his present team can make it in the big-time. But not only are Plymouth good at putting smaller clubs in their place, they now have a man in charge who has more recent experience of leading out teams at Wembley than any manager of infinitely more famous clubs.

Last May Neil Warnock, the archetypal journeyman football manager, took Huddersfield Town there for a Second Division play-off. In 1991 he raised Notts County to First Division status, also via the play-offs, and the previous year he had taken them into the Second Division, again by way of Wembley Stadium. There was also the 1994 Autoglass Wembley final when Huddersfield lost to Swansea in a penalty shoot-out.

Warnock is a great believer in targets. "The FA Cup always gives you something to aim at. We don't underestimate our job against Kingstonian but Plymouth is a big club. The Cup gives us a chance to go out and prove it with a big audience. We need the opportunity to project ourselves." Not that even he would be surprised to see today's game end in a draw, which would delight Kingstonian and be no embarrassment to Plymouth and is the most likely outcome.

Although Ken Bates once offered him the job as manager of Chelsea, Warnock has always been a wanderer in comparatively unknown territory. As a manager he has yet to experience the top flight. As a player he was always divisions below top class. He confesses to having been a fast but "dim" winger who could beat any number of players before running out of pitch. He more or less accepted that he would end up as a manager in places that were less than than exotic. But it was by being a manager of a club that was not in the League that he became manager of one that was. He took Scarborough into the Fourth Division in 1987. That small success had come after groundwork at Burton Albion and Gainsborough.

A move to Notts County, where he stayed for four seasons, ultimately brought more success, and it was at that point that Bates made his offer, which Warnock refused. When County were later relegated he regretted the decision and was even tempted to move back into chiropody, for which he was trained.

The wanderer moved on. Some hard work at Torquay United led to an unexpected offer from Huddersfield Town where he worked wonders, greatly improving the club's optimism to go into their futuristic new stadium with a team worthy of their new home. His attitude to management is consistent. Whatever the reasons for parting with clubs he says: "I like to think I left them in better shape than when I arrived." His departure from Huddersfield came after some disagreements with the chairman, but he says that everywhere he goes his priority is to "get the spirit right in the dressing-room". That he willingly dropped two divisions to manage Plymouth speaks volumes for his love of a challenge.

Plymouth's unhappy period with Peter Shilton as manager persuaded them to go for a man with a solid reputation for effort and producing useful teams with little money and a good record of promotions. In fact his budget was not ungenerous. It allowed him to go out and spend big money, for the Third Division at least, including the purchase of Adrian Littlejohn, a striker from Sheffield United who cost pounds 200,000 and is now the club's leading scorer. It was a shrewd buy and one of the reasons why he believes that in spite of some recent below-par league performances, Plymouth will devour another non-league challenger.