Warnock: the Town years

NEIL WARNOCK has never been backwards at coming forward.

NEIL WARNOCK has never been backwards at coming forward.

So when he opens the lid on his life, it’s hardly surprising it should make a compelling read.

Most football fans know the public persona, but few are aware of his family background, the struggles of his early career and why he now puts family commitments way above anything in his sport.

When he came to Town in 1993, he had already taken Scarborough and Notts County to promotion, managed in the top flight and helped save Torquay United from relegation into the  Conference.

He was also in the middle of a split from his first wife, Sue, and embarking on a new relationship with Sharon, with whom he has just renewed his wedding vows (celebrating with their children, Amy and William).

After a first season in which he admits his job (and career) were saved by a run to the Autoglass Trophy final, Warnock gives a candid insight into the promotion success of the following year and why, immediately after the play-off final victory over Bristol Rovers in 1995, he left to join Plymouth Argyle.

"A few tensions were developing off the pitch in the 1994-95 season, but on it everything went well," he recalls.

"I had my enthusiasm back now and I set my stall out again. We had played Arsenal at Highbury the season before in the League Cup and I went up to George Graham’s office afterwards and I looked round at the leather sofas and the nice desk.

"I knew my time had gone for that size of club but I wanted at least to rub shoulders again with the rich clubs.

"We spent most of the 1994-95 season right near the top of the table and, although we missed out on automatic promotion, we qualified comfortably for the play-offs, albeit in the last of the four places.

"We had finished fifth, so we had to play Brentford, who had finished second, four points above us. We drew 1-1 at the McAlpine and their striker missed three golden opportunities to put the tie out of our reach. We hung on and drew. When we went down to Griffin Park, I went up to the directors’ box before the game with Mick Jones and spotted two dozen bottles of champagne they had got ready for the celebrations afterwards. They were that sure they were going to finish us off. So obviously, I mentioned that in my team talk.

"They scored first through a lad called Martin Grainger and then Andy Booth equalised and it went to extra time and penalties.

"It all comes down to a spot kick from Darren Bullock, a lad I had signed from Nuneaton Borough for £35,000. I went to watch him play against West Midlands Police in a Birmingham Senior Cup tie one night. I knew after five or six minutes that I was going to sign him.

"He was everywhere, tackling and heading and dashing about as if his life depended on it. He was a window cleaner by trade. He had a bit of a nutcase reputation and I thought we’ll have some of that. He was a likeable rogue, always in trouble, but a good lad basically.

"And there he was at the end of that game at Brentford with a penalty that would take us into the Division II play-off final. When I saw him walking up to take it, I said to Mick Jones, ‘Oh my god, what’s he taking a penalty for?’ He was a cocky little lad and he placed the ball on the spot and then strutted back to take his run up. He hit it and the goalie dived and it must have bobbled about seven times before it crept over the line in the middle of the goal. It took an eternity to get in but eventually it made it. We were going to Wembley."

Warnock reveals why a final against Bristol Rovers had extra edge – since Town played them the previous season he’d been receiving hate mail!

"There had been an incident after the game when I was walking down the tunnel. It was covered with a metal mesh and the Bristol Rovers fans were having a go at me," he writes.

"When I looked up at them, someone spat in my face. I mentioned this at the Saturday night press conference afterwards and was critical of this incident. The following Tuesday morning, a letter was delivered to the house in Holmfirth I was sharing with Sharon. It mentioned Sharon’s name and made it plain that we ought to start watching our backs from now on.

"I didn’t think too much about it initially but we got two letters a week every week after that. The police took it very, very seriously and suggested we install a panic button. The letters kept coming. ‘Accidents Happen’ one of them said. That was all. We had a special alarm system fitted as well. We didn’t lose sleep over it but it wasn’t very pleasant. It made us fairly vigilant when we were out.

"One night in the winter of 1995, the snow started coming down and Holmfirth was cut off. It was about 10pm and cars were stuck and all sorts. So we got our wellies on and went down to help the people stranded in their cars.

"It was like the old war days. The cafe had stayed open and the owner was giving cups of tea out to people who were stuck. The fish and chip shop was the same. By the time we went back up to the house, we had helped dig out a couple of cars from drifts and we felt good.

"It was about 1am by then and all the power was off because one of the lines had been brought down by snow. Some time in the middle of the night the lights came back on and I staggered out of bed and turned them off.

"About three minutes later, there was this thunderous banging on the front door. It was hammering like you’d never heard. I looked out of the window and all I could see were these dark shapes in the night. We wondered what the hell was going on. It was frightening.

"I went downstairs and peered out and there were two policemen there with guns in their hands. I opened the door and there were three more police in armour-plated vests. It turned out the power cut had triggered the alarm and because the roads were blocked, the officers had had to run up from the police station. That’s when we realised how seriously the police must have been taking our hate mail."

It’s that sort of pressure, he says, which will make Sharon happy when he finally retires down to Cornwall.

"Anyway, my unfortunate history with Bristol Rovers made me especially keen to put one over on them at Wembley that day in May 1995. I had my play-off final routine off pat by then. It had always worked for me so I stuck to it," he confides.

"We stayed in the Hilton again, in the same rooms we had stayed in when I was with Notts County, and took the bus over on the morning of the game to do the private tour.

"Bristol Rovers were the favourites, I suppose, given that they had finished just behind Birmingham, who were the only side that went up automatically that season.

"They had Marcus Stewart and Gareth Taylor up front who were dangerous. They had other good players too. But we absolutely battered them in the first half.

"It got to injury time and I was thinking we could never score. Then we scored. Then deeper into injury time, they scored, too. When the half-time whistle finally blew, I walked off chuntering to the referee about why there had been so much added time but all the time I was jabbering, I knew I had a hell of a job on my hands to lift my  players.

"That was one of the most difficult half-time tasks I’d ever had. We had played well and we had had the euphoria of scoring the goal and then all of a sudden we had been kicked in the face.

"Instead of being on a high, we were on a low in the space of thirty seconds. If you didn’t know what the score was and you had gone into our dressing room and looked at the players’ faces, you would have thought we were losing 3-0.

"Mick Jones was worried. He said I’d better do something because they were so flat. I went back in and tried to get them off the floor. I reminded them how much we had dominated Bristol Rovers and that we could do it again.

"We went back out and it was obvious the effects of conceding the equaliser were still lingering.

Bristol Rovers were on a high and Marcus Stewart had two great chances which our goalkeeper Steve Francis kept out with two superb saves. We were very fortunate, but after 20 minutes of the second half we stopped feeling sorry for ourselves at last and began to play again.

"Ten minutes from the end, I took Gary Crosby off. He was disgusted with me but I knew it was the right thing. I brought on a lad called Iain Dunn, who was as bald as a badger.

"The fans had a song for him that helped make him a cult hero way beyond Huddersfield. He was a lovely lad, Iain. There was no malice in him. I put him on the left wing and the first time he got the ball, he went past his full back and whipped in a cross from which we scored the winner."

Warnock’s recollection of Chris Billy’s winner isn’t entirely accurate, but he can be forgiven for that.

"What a moment that was. We hung on and hung on for those last agonising minutes and when the final whistle went, the celebrations were fantastic. We got back up to Huddersfield and the town was going mad," he remembers.

"It should have been plain sailing from then on. I could have turned Huddersfield into another Notts County and taken them up to the Premiership. But it wasn’t plain sailing. In fact, by the time I won the play-off final, I had made up my mind I wanted to leave. It was the same old thing, falling out with the chairman."

He explains: "About February of the promotion season, I had a disagreement with Terry Fisher. He promised me certain things and then a few weeks later, he reneged on them. I wasn’t on a lot of money at Huddersfield so I had asked him if I could supplement my wages by opening a souvenir shop in town and running it. I was willing to spend the money on the shop to do it and I would give the club a percentage of the takings.

"Terry seemed to be in favour of the idea and he said he would get back to me. A few weeks after the conversation, the club decided to open a shop of their own. I felt let down by that. Terry Fisher said that was business. But our relationship broke down after that.

"I realised after the play-offs that I wanted to leave. Some of the Huddersfield directors came to see me when they heard I was intending to leave and asked me if I would consider changing my mind. I told them it had gone too far. It had got to the stage where I didn’t want to stay. I’d had enough.

"I was in demand again. I had an interview with Lionel Pickering at Derby County and took great pleasure in telling him how Arthur Cox had cost him a couple of million quid. And Derek Pavis met me at The Belfry and asked me to go back to Notts County.

"I knocked them both back. I took an option no-one expected me to take, dropped down a couple of divisions and accepted the manager’s job at Plymouth."

 

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