Monday, 9 January 2012

The Circus Moves Town: Why the Warnock Sacking was Correct

The Ringmaster - created by James Lister

The big decision that has appeared to split opinion in the football world in the last 24 hours is the decision of QPR to sack Neil Warnock. Such is the diversity of opinion, with as many commending the ballsy stand of Tony Fernandes and his directors as those recoiling in incredulity at the decision, that the level of support for Warnock must surpass any level he has achieved in his long career in football. 

A lot of the defence for Warnock centres around the timing of the decision, the fact that QPR (a newly promoted club) sit outside the relegation places and that he was hampered in his ability to act at the start of the season due to the takeover deal at Loftus Road. Yet I think each of these arguments can be put to bed alongside some other analysis of his career.

Taking QPR's form first of all. Yes, they sit outside the relegation places and yes they have recently beaten Chelsea, amongst others. However, it is your form against the teams around you that can save you in a relegation battle. The failure to take more than a point from any of the teams in the bottom ten is potentially what can cost the R's at the end of the season, particularly if replicated in return fixtures.

Based on their form over the first twenty games, QPR are heading for 32 points, which would mean relegation in four of the last five seasons. You can argue that a lower total may see a side relegated this year, but no-one can predict what might happen in the remainder of the season.

When Warnock managed Sheffield United in their last Premier League season, it was his tactics away from home that proved costly.Performances proving that he lacks ideas once teams have sussed out his team and tactics. The penultimate game away against an average Villa side being a game that most fans point to. Odd team selection, negative tactics and on the back foot throughout a 3-0 defeat. Those goals conceded were to prove costly. As much as fans point to the one goal differential that sent United down, to the Tevez scandal and to general bad luck, there were numerous times Warnock got it wrong - not that he would ever admit to it.

Interestingly, it is QPR's home form that is an issue this time around. With just one win at home in 10 games there are clearly issues to be addressed. At most other clubs there would be an element of the support becoming restless and vocal. Credit to R's fans because I have read little of it happening at Loftus Road. How long might that have lasted though? Especially if the away form isn't enough to compensate.

People question the time Warnock's been given, especially on the back of such a convincing Championship title winning season, and the fact that his pre-season transfer market activity was impinged by Fernandes' protracted takeover. Yet when Warnock is given significant amounts of money to spend he fails to use it wisely and it has limited impact.

It is a popular misconception, one that Warnock was happy to enhance, that Kevin McCabe failed to back Warnock in the transfer market. Maybe he didn't provide funds to the extent of other clubs, but most of the time Warnock was given significant money to spend it was wasted.

Take the promotion season of 2005-06, when he spent big in January to pep up the attack with Ade Akinbiyi and Geoff Horsfield arriving for £1.75m and £1.2m respectively. Akinbiyi made 18 appearancesand scored 3 goals (5 of those appearances the following season in the PremierLeague) before United lost £1m on his sale back to Burnley. Horsfield signed on loan with an agreed permanent transfer of £1.2m fixed in place. He made just three appearances and was eventually released from his contract.

In January 2006, the Blades sat 15th in the Premier League with 23 points from 21 games and 5 points clear of the relegation zone. Given significant funds to spend Warnock signed the following:

Luton Shelton (£2m - 2 starts and 2 sub appearances to the end of the season)

Matthew Kilgallon (£1.75m - 6 appearances to the end of the season)

Ahmed Fathy (£700k - 2 starts and 1 sub appearance to the end of the season)

Jon Stead (£750k - a relative success with 5 goals in 12 starts)

Added to that he had spent a club record fee of around £3m the previous Summer on
Claude Davis, who made just 18 starts all season.
It is worth noting that, amongst all the factors to be blamed for the Blades' subsequent relegation in the pages of his autobiography "Made in Sheffield", no mention is made of his transfer activity that January. In fact the only way you would know these players had arrived was from his complaints about the stonewall penalty claim that Luton Shelton had at Old Trafford towards the end of the season. A convenient re-write of history and demonstrating the man's inability to admit he does get it wrong.

This season has a similar feel. Joey Barton is more in the news for ill-discipline and his use of Twitter, rathert han his on-pitch performances and impact. Kieron Dyer lasted three minutes,Shaun Wright-Phillips is frustratingly inconsistent, Jay Bothoyd is out of favour and made just 11 starts, Danny Gabbidon is thought to lack pace, DJ Campbell has made just 2 appearances, although Armand Traor√© and Anton Ferdinand have been steady enough. Meanwhile Bruno Perone and Brian Murphy have made two appearances between them, typical Warnock signings you might say.

The only thing Neil Warnock is focused on is himself and often to the detriment of the club he manages. He was given more time than any other manager would have had in the circumstances at Bramall Lane. After two cup semi-finals and a play-off final defeat in 2003, the next two seasons saw United miss out on the Play Offs. The final game of the 2004/05 season saw United lose at home to Millwall and finish the game with Chris Morgan up front, Phil Jagielka in central midfield and Andy Gray in central defence. You could legitimately question his thinking and ideas and many did at the end of the match during the team's "lap of honour". Yet the United board stood by him and Warnock repaid them in awful fashion.

In 2005/06 with the Blades having made a good start to the season, he entered contract negotiations to leave his "beloved Blades" and join Portsmouth, all whilst preparing for a Sheffield Derby. He eventually stayed and the following May saw him lead the Blades back to the top tier. The worst example though was his  bleating to the press about his contract situation on the morning of the final game of the Premier League season against Wigan Athletic. All the while conveniently forgetting the time and support he had been given (and taken)  in order to get the club to the Premier League. At the same time, losing focus from the important task in hand.

Neil always used to play on the fact that he was a Blade and how much he loved the club. This becomes something the fans cling to, some still do sadly. He says all the right things. Yet you soon realise he says the same things everywhere he goes. As Blades fans were once the best fans and Kevin McCabe the best chairman, it soon became Palace supporters and Simon Jordan. Then it was R's supporters.....who next?

The thing that ultimately grates with Neil is that when things are good he wants all the credit. When things start going sour, it is never his fault. As things start to deteriorate, he flails about like a fish out of water, with accusations and blame cast to all and sundry. The ensuing media attention masking both his and the team's failings, whilst embarrassing the fans in the know. The recent rant against Van Persie, appears to be the start of him entering that downward spiral of myths yet again. 

The BBC's Dan Walker tweeted this morning; "(It) says everything about Neil Warnock's reputation that at least 10 Champ sides will be eyeing him up this morning." And therein lies the issue with Neil Warnock. A good Championship manager he is, but he lacks the mental toughness and tactical capability to cut it at the top level. Something that Tony Fernandes may have acknowledged and something I can't help wishing we had acknowledged sooner at Sheffield United. If Kevin McCabe had cut the strings at Christmas, might the season have had a happier ending?

Many Blades fans would agree, he was the wrong man to manage us in the Premier League however, once he had remained in situ, he was the right man to get us back there post relegation. He was never given that chance and now too many bridges have been burned, both with elements of the support, but also owner Kevin McCabe. You see, it was okay for Warnock to seek out new opportunities, but not okay for his hand to be forced with a sacking.

I have respect for a lot of what Warnock achieved at United and throughout the rest of his career, however I think a fellow Blade summed it up quite well on twitter last night. In response to ridiculous talk from a minority of Unitedites, who were wanting a Warnock return at the expense of Danny Wilson, he finished off his point by saying that aside from anything else; Warnock is  "A circus we don't need in town". I have no doubt he will pitch up elsewhere though and will probably be a success. Once you've seen the show though, I don't think it ever can, or should, be repeated.


  1. Without doubt, your best piece of analysis Ian. It's been interesting watching the threads developing on the various message boards since the sacking and I'm somewhat surprised by the lack of disciples clamouring for his return.

  2. A fascinating post and great read, I must agree with the vast majority of it.
    The vast majority of Neil's problems seem to lie in an inability to spot top quality strikers. He is often prone to overspending on attackers who either lack the ability or simply do not fit into the one-dimensional Warnock tactic.
    That said he is a 'people person'. He knows what to say and when to say it which makes him a very likeable manager to the club he is in charge of. He is able to get the best out of 'average' players, however when faced with Premier league football their 'best' is not enough, and one directional tactics conbined with somewhat less than impressive transfers would have led to an incredibly tense season for all involved at QPR. That is not to say they would be relegated, but that is the risk that Fernandes was not willing to take.

  3. A good Championship manager, never good enough in the premier league, either tactically or as in the article with his signings.
    Brilliant piece.

  4. Overall, I probably agree that Warnock is not the man for the Premiership. His inability to attract star players and, in particular, a consistent goalscorer, will probably dictate, he will forever be known as a safe pair of hands to get you promotion from the Championship but not a top flight boss.
    I do think your article though is a little too critical of his legacy. When he took over from Heath, Utd were staring relegation to division 3 in the face with only one decent player and crowds at 7,000. He left seven years later having taken us to the Prem, increased gates to 30,000, taken us to 2 semi-finals and a play off final. Yes, his signings at the end of the promotion season were odd (I never understood Horsfield)but you fail to mention his signing of Rob Hulse prior to the Prem season whose injury at Chelsea probably cost us our place at the top level. Kilgallon was also a decent signing in subsequent seasons.
    He actually did well on a low transfer budget throughout his time at Utd and even in the Prem his signings were dictated by McCabe refusing to break the wage structure which impacts more on the quality of signing than fees (strangely he then did exactly that for Robson to sign Beattie, but that is a whole new story).
    As for the "minority" wanting him back, you are probably right but that I think is more realism that he wouldn't drop down to League One and McCabe wouldn't hire him. In reality though I would feel our club was in much safer hands with Warnock, a man with numerous promotions on his cv, than Wilson, whose career highlight was 1 promotion in his first job followed by serial failure. I wonder what Blades fans will think if DW doesn't take us up despite having the highest wage bill in the division?

  5. Absolutely brilliant piece- really enjoyed it.

    From a QPR fan who lived in Sheffield when Warnock was in charge at Bramall Lane, I can see so many similarities in his time at both clubs.

    He is fantastic at winning over the fans and his teams display the grit and determination that is so often lacking from a modern day side. He was a breath of fresh air at Loftus Road and was the man behind the best season in years, one I and many other QPR fans will never forget.

    However as you point out so well, he is quick to deflect blame when things go wrong and was looking more and more out of his depth with every game that went by in the Premier League.

    I will always be thankful of what he did to our club when it was a laughing stock and destined for more years of frustration, but the decision to part company with him will be justified come May.

    Good luck for the rest of the season, will always have great memories of Sheffield and Sheffield United.

  6. Ian , that was agreat read. Thanks for taking the time. Im a qpr fan, and whilst I felt sad to hear about the sacking, as Last season was a hell of a ride, Im right behind the board at the club taking this course right now, before it is too late. It is a business, and they need it to stay in the prem. Good luck this season. Tom

  7. Can't disagree with any of that Ian nor with the comments by various football fans. For me Warnock gave the Blades their pride back - we had a gutsy didn't know when they were beaten team under Warnock and the effort he manages to get from what must be said are pretty average players has to be commended.

    However at QPR, with money to burn, his limitations were laid bare. Not surprised he's been sacked but he's a great bet for any Championship club wanting to get back into the Prem - he'll get 'em there no doubt about it but as his record suggest he won't be keep 'em up.

  8. Excellent article. I agree that Mr Warnock is good at getting teams promoted, but not so good at sustaining them at the summit. A good Sherpa maybe? Anyway, another great piece. Keep it up sir.

  9. Good article, however disagree on his QPR signings.

    Joey Barton and SWP - I think universally agreed as top signings by R's fans, not Warnocks fault they are underperforming
    Dyer - injured, and on a pay as you play contract anyway
    Jay Bothroyd - "only" 11 starts. Thats most of the games this season?
    Danny Gabbidon - performed well this season
    DJ Campbell - injured for the last 2 months
    Brian Murphy - signed as a reserve keeper
    Bruno Perone - perhaps Warnocks only dud signing but signed in the pre season when he had his hands tied with the old owners.

    With a heavy heart, I agree with his sacking but I think if a few things (wrongly offside goals, strikers missing open goals etc) had gone his way, he'd still be here. Best of luck Neil

  10. Superb and enlightening, thank you from a QPR fan

  11. We were chatting about Warnock coming out of Bramall Lane at the weekend (prior to his sacking) and came to the same conclusions.

    As for the QPR signings, a 20% success ratio (Barton and SWP) isn't good enough for a top team - something Hughes will do much better on, though he'll need much more money than Warnock has ever been used to spending.

    In some ways I feel sorry that Neil will never get the chance to manage a top flight team with a big budget to play with, greater than most other teams in the Prem.

    Personally I can't see him going to another club team again. He likes a bit of romance about a position, something I don't think any of the current Championship teams could offer, and don't think he'd go any lower. I can see him turning up at a national team, maybe an African team, Ivory Coast of something.

  12. A quite unnecessary and unjustified attack on a Blades legend Ian. Of course the "bleating" of Neil was made prior to the morning of the Wigan game - it just appeared then - irrelevant. Warnock bought pride back to the Lane and delivered 2 extraordinary seasons. He championed the Blades and our fans at every opportunity. The unbelievable decision to replace him so callously has, accompanied by the horrific choice of Robson, set us back at least 10, maybe 20 years. McCabe is entirely culpable for this.
    Warnock rejected a huge offer from Pompey and I for one was incredibly proud and grateful that he did! ANY person is entitled to explore ANY employment possibilities in his professional working life - yes even Warnock.
    On minimal transfer fees he built the 2002-3 side which was rich in quality and endeavor. I hope with the largest wages in the current division, Wilson can do the same - I wonder if years down the line you will attack him so unnecessarily. Be grateful that we had Neil and for the wonderful job he did.
    I for one am "ridiculous" in your words for dreaming of a return of a Blades legend to our club rather than a Wednesday one!