There is probably no good time to be sacked, but the timing of Neil Warnock’s dismissal as manager of Crystal Palace on Saturday seemed at first to be especially cruel, coming on the eve of the club’s match at Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, whom Warnock guided to promotion to the Premier League in 2011.
On second thoughts, perhaps it was a mercy. Warnock would not exactly have been returning to Loftus Road in triumph, but as the manager of a struggling side that dropped into the bottom three after the 3-1 home defeat by Southampton on Boxing Day, a dispiriting loss that proved the final straw for the Palace board.
Warnock, who was in fourth months into his second spell at Palace and becomes the first Premier League manager sacked this season, faced jeers and chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” when substituting crowd favourite Yannick Bolasie, even though the winger had made little impact and, Warnock revealed, was tired and preoccupied by the imminent birth of a child.
But it was yet another toothless, deeply unimpressive performance at Selhurst Park, which has been nothing like the intimidating venue under Warnock that it became last season as Tony Pulis transformed the team from relegation probables to a lower mid-table outfit.
Palace have won only two home games since Warnock took over in August, against bottom-of-the-table Leicester City in September and Liverpool last month, an unlikely 3-1 triumph whose promise was never followed up and which remains their only victory in their past 12 matches. Pulis won seven home games, including a 1-0 defeat of Chelsea, but walked out two days before the start of the season after differences over player recruitment and budget.
The manager criticised his team’s defensive errors against Southampton, but they are also punchless in attack and Warnock had put his faith in the success of January bids for as many as three different strikers, the squad’s direst need. Midfield player Mile Jedinak is the top scorer with five goals, three of them penalties. However, Pulis had achieved safety with more or less the same forwards, and Warnock will not have endeared himself to many by saying that Palace “had a lot of luck last year. I don’t see us getting a lot of luck this year, so we are due a little bit”.
Steve Parish, the co-chairman, announced that club stalwart Keith Millen would take up his caretaker role for a third time, and said of Warnock: “It just didn’t gel. It didn’t work. Keith is probably in charge for the next two games. We need a win. QPR is no bigger than any other but we need three points.
“Neil is a lovely bloke. He did everything he could. It’s an unfortunate decision. I thought about it overnight and decided we needed a change. Hopefully we’ll get a reaction from everybody.” The reaction, from supporters on Twitter, was largely positive, many noting that Warnock has never finished a season by keeping a club in the Premier League.
Pulis is unlikely to be persuaded to return, leaving Tim Sherwood, who impressed as manager of Tottenham Hotspur in the second half of last season, among the more realistic favourites to take over. His willingness to promote young players rather than buy would play well in the Palace boardroom. Dougie Freedman, manager between January 2011 and October 2012, dismissed by Bolton Wanderers in October, and Tony Popovic, once Freedman’s assistant and an ex-Palace player who has twice been coach of the season in Australia, are also possibles.
What now for Warnock, 66? He has managed 13 different professional clubs, and showed no lack of appetite for the fray on Friday evening. He was looking forward to today’s return to QPR and expecting a rousing welcome from the homesupporters.
Asked, with eerie prescience, whether Palace would be his last job if he was sacked, he replied: “I’ve said it about 15 times, I don’t think I can answer that, you’ve got to ask other people.”
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