|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 Traoré 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.