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The Warnock philosophy of football and his future at Leeds

An opinion piece on Warnock's footballing philosophy, his past, the present and what it means for the future of Leeds United.

Clive Mason

"I think we showed some guts today. The first thing you've got to do in the Championship is not roll over, you've got to be prepared to put your head in, do the nasty parts of the game, the horrible parts of the game, and then you've got to take your chances to win."
–Neil Warnock summarising his footballing philosophy after Leeds United draw 0-0 with Portsmouth, February 2012.

Hate him or love him

Neil Warnock has managed 13 clubs in English football, winning promotion with seven of them, including taking Notts County, Sheffield United (the club he’s supported since a kid) and QPR to the top tier and is now looking to do the same with Leeds United.
Warnock, the Marmite man of English football, has a unique philosophy that he’s apply to every team he’s managed, to varying degrees of success, the most easily recallable being his time at QPR: he wins them promotion quite well, but then he fails to secure the board’s confidence in him just a few months into their first Premier League season.

Most Leeds fans, even those who dislike Warnock, weren’t overly displeased when Ken Bates brought him in to replace out-of-favour Simon Grayson, as Warnock could promise us what we’ve been craving for so long - a return to the top flight. Through his typical tactics and strategy, maybe a bit of dealing in the transfer market (especially since Warnock would be the first manger we've had who’d have no problem standing up to Bates), it looked possible.
Yet, it could be going a hell of a lot better. Warnock recently said that his role at Leeds is one of the toughest jobs he has had during his managerial career, but the 64-year-old has no regrets about joining the Yorkshire club.

Warnock has managed of 13 different clubs since taking up his first post at Gainsborough Trinity in 1980 and wants to be the first manager in English football to win promotion on eight occasions, though most Leeds fans seem to believe their chance of witnessing Premier League football next season is slipping with a run of bad, listless performances.

Playing the game:

In fairness, Warnock had to launch a promotion push with typical Bates-limited funds at a time when an extended takeover deal made his job more confusing and difficult. Warnock, always outspoken, didn't exactly keep him mouth shut for fear of offending someone and was, as always, reluctant to blame himself.

But with Warnock you have to read the subtext under everything he says. The man isn't a fool by any means; he’s intelligent, he’s stubborn and he knows how to play the game. One of Warnock’s recent interviews – in which he responds to the fans’ waning patience – contains quotes (and their translations, or at least my guess at them) that are typical of Warnock. His quotes include:

"I've had more takeovers than just about any other manager, three out of the last three clubs I've been at, and to keep the ship here sailing as it is isn't an easy job.”

(Translation: It’s quite hard, (which, to be fair, it is definitely not the ideal circumstances in which to manage a team), so give me a break. I’m used to this by now, so there’s no one better for Leeds than me at this moment in time.)

"There's a lot more involved than people realise and that's why I always say that all you can do is your best. But I think it needed someone with my experience to steady the waters here. I don't know how a younger manager would have coped with everything.

(Translation: Leeds fans should be glad to have me. A less experienced manager could’ve done a lot worse. He doesn’t say that a more tactically-apt manager or one better a transfers could’ve done a lot better.)

"All managers are expected to deliver. It goes with the territory. But all you can do is your best.”

(Translation: I have to pick up wins. I admit that. Honest of the man.)

"That's what I set out to do this season. I can honestly say that it hasn't been one of my easiest jobs but it's one I wouldn't have resisted.

(Translation: This is a really tough job, but it’s Leeds. C’mon fans, how could I resist? Will you like me if I say I like the club?)

"It's a fabulous club and I still think the majority of supporters are behind me. You always get a few who aren't but that's only natural. They've had so many promises over the years and they're frustrated."

(Translation: I feel your pain, fans. You’ve been hurt before. I understand that you don’t like me. I mean you’re wrong to dislike me, but I understand it.)

Warnock’s trying to remind us that we’ve won our lasts six matches at home, and that we’re still mid-table in the league, in prime position to launch a final-third-of-the-season assault on the playoff places.

Warnock’s up there with the best of ‘em when it comes to excuses (Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho Benitez etc). His excuses have changed gear during the transition from Christmas to January, going from the takeover to Becchio’s head being “turned”, ignoring the fact that no team should revolve around or solely rely on one player.

Warnock’s blaming of Becchio is transparent, and it certainly isn’t the first time Warnock has blamed a single player for the team’s, or indeed his, poor performances. Anyone remember when Warnock had a pop at Clint Hill for QPR's 2-0 defeat to Milwall? He said: “The first goal, one header from a header and the kid’s through on goal. It’s Raggy Arse Rovers. For the second one, when have you seen Clint Hill mess about like that? He thought he was Jose Enrique or someone."

Hell, it doesn’t even have to be his player as long as it distracts the fans from the match. In 2011, after that infamous Blackburn –v– QPR game when El-Hadji Diouf taunted QPR player Jamie Mackie after he suffered a double facture to his leg, Warnock said: "For many years I have thought he was the gutter type - I was going to call him a sewer rat, but that might be insulting to sewer rats. He's the lowest of the low and I can't see him being at Blackburn much longer." Yes, the incident was disgraceful to say the least, but does anyone remember the score of the game, or just the Diouf incident and the “Sewer-Rat” comment? For those who don’t, Warnock’s QPR lost by a goal to nil, and the Diouf comments, while kinda warranted, were his version of Fergie blaming the linesman after the Mancs were battered by Spurs and still managed to draw.

Warnock’s Philosophy and its appliance at Leeds

But what most fans seem to be paying attention to isn’t so much our mixed-bag of results (12 wins, 5 draws, 11 losses) but our poor, uninspired performances and Warnock’s weak excuses.

Take our last few matches for example: we were cleanly beaten by Nottingham Forest, outplayed and beaten by Hull, a single Becchio penalty gets us a tight win against Bolton, then we’re thoroughly outplayed by bottom-of-the-league Barnsley who, without a manager, were more inspired and tactically outmanoeuvred Warnock’s side, and finally a mere 1-0 win over Bristol City, the leakiest defence in the league.

Warnock’s typical managerial style revolves around building a team of cheap rejects…and Paddy Kenny and getting them to play much better than they have any right to. The football’s never pretty and performances revolve around high work rates, tough tackles and goal-poaching and results are grinded out week after week. This has worked for a time during his days at Notts County, his beloved Sheffield United and during his promotion season with QPR.

But while his first Premier League season with QPR went sour as his players were (and still are) outclassed at this higher level, the present is very similar as the current crop of Leeds players – most of whom Warnock actively sought out – just aren’t cutting it in the Championship, even with his style. They’ve been unmotivated, listless and generally poor in their performances, even for a gritty Warnock side.

While El-Hadji Diouf stood out for us at the start of the season with his impressive work rate and Becchio reminded us once again he can be a number nine in a number ten’s jersey when called upon, very few other player have stood out performance-wise. Byram? Doing his best and definitely one for the future, but a right-back can only have so much impact on a game. Austin? A tenacious bull of a player, but injuries have taken him out of the side more than we’d like. McCormack? Injuries also kept him out and he’s only finding his way back into the XI now. And keep in mind that we could still lose Becchio.

One only has to look at Ross Barkley’s two performances for us after he joined United on loan: in the Barnsley game he was seemingly the only player who realised that he was being paid to play football and never stopped chasing the ball, and against Bristol he was the only player who seemed to realise that if we run, pass, cross and shoot enough we could crack their incredibly weak defence. No doubt that Warnock and his fellow players will strip Barkley of his youthful exuberance and footballing idealism before we send him back to the Blues of Merseyside, just as we did for Andros Townsend and Jerome Thomas.

Should he stay or should he rock the Casbah?

While there’s a sizable section of paying Leeds fans who’ve been chanting “time to go” at Neil Warnock, opinion is still divided amongst fans, and if we were in the Premier League there’d be big-named (with matching egos) pundits with divided opinions too.

Personally, I’m a firm believer that managerial consistency is directly linked to long-term success (Revie, Fergie, Moyes, Wenger…) but I also have to state that Warnock was never going to be a long-term manager. GFH backing aside, it always seemed to me that the marriage between Leeds and Warnock was one based around quickly achieving mutual goals as opposed to mutual love and the future dream of a three bedroom house, two kids, a white picket fence and a dog named Rover. Warnock gets us promoted and goes down as the only manager to have won promotion eight times, and Leeds finally return to the promised land and the two go their separate ways: Warnock to a comfy retirement or an easy job and Leeds to a drawn-out fight to stay up and gain a foothold in the Premier League.

But does that mean GFH should about face and sack the ‘promotion specialist’? Again, it’s my opinion, but I’ve got to say no, not unless they’ve a lined-up replacement (Lambert, Adkins anybody?) as we’d just be writing off this season, just like we did last season when we brought in Warnock to begin with. We should keep him until the end of the season, at the very least, and depending on the availability of other managers, how close we came to promotion this season, who we’ve got left in our squad and what kind of funds we’ve available, then we should either replace him or keep the faith.

Does that mean we should stop the chanting and the booing and the sarcastic cheering when we’ve a shot on goal? I’m split on this. If we don’t stop then GFH could take us too seriously and sack Warnock and we could flounder to a lower-mid table finish. If we do stop, then Warnock might get complacent; if they fans don’t care we’ve occupied 11th place for the majority of the season, then they won’t care if we only get an 8th place finish.

There has to be a balance where we can voice our concern and dissatisfaction about the results and the performances and have GFH and Warnock agree to rectify the problems without overreacting and buying too many expensive and crap players or turning us into a Chelsea and get into the habbit of sacking our manager every six to eight months ‘cause things aren’t looking perfect.

It’s important to mention that while Warnock’s off to a slow start in January, there’s a week left and providing we keep our players at Elland Road (Becchio, c’mon man. We need you and you need us.) we could still launch promotion push from 11th place. I don’t like the man for his personality or his managerial tactics, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get us promoted.

Does it?

As per usual, I’m accepting that my opinion ain’t worth much and it definitely ain’t the only one in existence. While I based this article on facts, I’m completely open to corrections and other opinions.