Neil Warnock turns 70 on Saturday when the Cardiff City manager will join an exclusive club (membership: three) who have reached that milestone working in the Premier League. Graham Thomas listened to how and why Warnock the touchline warrior keeps battling on.
Far from waning, Neil Warnock’s memory seems to be improving with age.
Ask him when he first decided football management offered a fulfilling and long-term career option, the Premier League’s new septuagenarian hesitates for about half a second.
“It was Hartlepool, 1972,” says the Cardiff City manager who will turn 70 on Saturday and join Roy Hodgson, Sir Alex Ferguson and the late Sir Bobby Robson as those who bossed it into decade number eight.
“I had a manager called Len Ashurst and we got beat at Boston in the FA Cup. He called us all in the next day and started on every player and what he thought of them.
“He got to me and I’ll never forget what he said – what we should have done and why we let him down and the club down.
“But it struck me there, that I was a journeyman footballer. Someone told me I’d made a success out of being a failure. I knew I could never get to the top. I wasn’t good enough. I was a quick, brainless winger.”
Warnock was 24 at the time and had seven more years of running up and down the wing for Hartlepool, Scunthorpe, Aldershot, Barnsley, York and Crewe.
“I couldn’t change direction. I used to be quick, mind you, and they’d have to open the gates at the far end so I could run out of the ground.”
Then came the switch from jobbing footballer to job-hungry manager – a choice that has kept him in sheepskin coats, tracksuits and baggy sweatshirts for 39 years and counting. Margaret Thatcher had just become prime minister.
By the time he stopped playing at 31 in 1979, Warnock was ready to conquer, in not the world, then certain parts of Yorkshire and other northern outposts.
“I had played 300-odd games over 10 years, but I realised the only way I could get to the top was as a manager. I loved talking when I was playing and telling people what to do.
“I started coaching in a Sunday league, at Todwick, then went to Gainsborough and Scarborough. I knew that to become a good manager I had to serve my education.”
He may now rub shoulders on the touchline with Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, in their Armani suits and grey and black V-neck sweaters, but Warnock’s first taste of management sounds more like the four Northerners sketch from Monty Python.
“At Todwick, I took the washing to the launderette on a Sunday morning. I’d give the girl eight quid to do it all. The treasurer used to collect 50p subs from players for the electricity and we’d train twice a week under one floodlight, having changed outside the dressing rooms.
“It was the same at Gainsborough. I used to take the players to the pub after training and we’d play darts and dominoes with the fans to try and give something back. Burton and Scarborough were similar.”
From Scarborough, he want to Notts County, Torquay, Huddersfield, Plymouth, Oldham, Bury – “the only real disaster” – Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, QPR, Leeds, back to Palace, back to QPR, Rotherham and then Cardiff.
Many of his old friends and foes have not just retired from football, but they’ve had the dreaded vote of confidence from life itself before being summoned to the ultimate upstairs boardroom.
“When you get to my age, you look at the newspapers and watch the news and everybody you knew seems to be passing away,” says Warnock, who Bluebirds fans hope can tick along for a while yet – and at least until Friday’s home game with Wolves.
“Am I dinosaur? I think I am regarding my date of birth. And that’s one of the more complimentary words used to describe me.
“But you can’t do this job at this age unless you’ve got enthusiasm and it’s the players who keep me feeling young.”
As if by Warnock decree, the Premier League and Sky Sports have been able to give him a day off on Saturday. The Bluebirds will have spent the previous evening in action against Wolves.
He will spend the following day with his family and insists he won’t even have an ear primed for the results of relegation-fighting rivals.
“It’s the lads here who keep me young and the day-to-day environment. You can’t really replicate that when you do pack in.
“And the fact that there is so much tragedy going on in the world means you just have to grasp every moment you can.
“Years go, you’d never have thought that people like Roy and myself would still be managing at this age.
“It’s hard to explain, but you can’t do it at this age unless you’ve got that enthusiasm. It would be very difficult to manage in a different situation regarding the fans.
“It woudn’t bother me managing back in League Two, but with this group of fans it would be amazing if we could take it right to the end.”
Rival fans enjoy baiting Warnock. It may be because of a sneering disregard for the style his teams adopt, or the fact that his Yorkshire tones sound out of place in a modern management world thick with Portuguese, Spanish and German accents.
Either way, water. . . duck’s back and all that. In fact, you get the impression that if he does retire than pantomime villain might be his next chosen career move.
“Most people that criticise me, fans at other clubs, think, ‘we don’t like him but we wouldn’t mind him as our manager’.
“I get into trouble sometimes because I say what I think and that’s maybe because I’m a Yorkshire lad and so I sometimes I put my foot in it.
“But people get what they see with me. Whether at home or away, or on the radio, I’ll say what I want to say.
“Nowadays, there are that many interviews where you know what’s coming. People are bland and non-committal.
“It’s probably because people are worried about the future. At my age, you don’t worry about the future. You only worry about next week.
“When I first started my ambitions were to manage Sheffield United, to manage at the top level, and to get a team to Wembley. I’ve been able to do all three and I know if my mum was still alive she’d be very proud of me.
“Yes, I know I’ve upset a few people on the way. My dad used to say, don’t mess with people on the way up and they won’t mess with you on the way down. But I think I’ve always tried to be straightforward with people.
“I think there aren’t many players who would say they didn’t enjoy playing for me and there aren’t many fans who would say they haven’t enjoyed having me as a manager.
“I joke with Bristol City fans that when I pass away they’ll have a minute chanting, ‘Warnock is a so-and-so’ but that’s only tongue in cheek. As much as they have a go at me, I know they respect me.
“It’s the same when I go to Ipswich and other grounds. But I think characters are going out of the game in the main.
“I have to be careful these days because if I did what I used to do, I’d get fined. You could do what you wanted in the old days. Now, you can’t get away with it.
“Things have changed. We used to take our jumpers off and put them down in the park for a game of football, but everyone is on their phones these days.”
Including Neil Warnock, who will be busy with a phone clutched to his ear, trying to do January deals over the next few weeks, as soon as the candles have been blown out on his cake.
Retirement? That’s at least one more season away yet.