x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A shame there is only one Warnock

In almost three decades in the dugout, he is among the select group who have managed English Football League clubs in over 1,000 games.

In a season of shocks, the Premier League finally reasserted its authority in the weekend's FA Cup ties. Notts County had beaten one top-flight side, Wigan, but they lost to another, Fulham, 4-0; Cardiff, with a giant-killing pedigree after reaching the 2008 final, conceded four goals at Chelsea; Portsmouth, despite a growing sense of crisis, scored four against Southampton; Birmingham, who initially trailed to Derby, duly won.

But there was one exception. Crystal Palace are in administration, losing their most promising player as well as the 10 points they were deducted at the end of January, but they were three minutes away from eliminating Aston Villa. They provided a remarkable anomaly, overseen by a man who is certainly that. Ever quotable and ever controversial, Neil Warnock is proving that, for all his eccentricities, he is a very fine manager.

The post-match outburst, in which he suggested Ray Massey, the assistant referee, should be banned for weeks for awarding the corner that preceded Stiliyan Petrov's late equaliser, can camouflage that. But Warnock has spent his entire career with a self-constructed siege mentality. It is tempting to regard him as a manager for adversity; he is entitled to reply he has rarely had the chance to operate in prosperity. Administration was the latest in a long line of blows the world has landed on the temperamental Yorkshireman, but it has never succeeded in silencing him.

In almost three decades in the dugout, he is among the select group who have managed English Football League clubs in over 1,000 games. There is a lingering sense of injustice that his inglorious playing days render him a less fashionable choice than some of his counterparts; his longevity shows that Warnock's continuing love of the game rivals anyone's. His two seasons in the top flight, with Notts County and Sheffield United, have both culminated in relegation and there are legitimate questions about his judgement of players at the highest level. In the Championship, however, he has a deserved reputation as a bargain hunter.

And Palace stifled Villa in no small measure due to Warnock. He decided to man-mark Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, limiting the wingers' influence in open play. He has revived Darren Ambrose who, after scoring a solitary goal last season, mustered a sweet 16th of the season on the Sunday. He has rallied a club stripped of players but imbued with spirit. Hardship has shown Warnock's resourcefulness. In the fourth-round replay, Danny Butterfield, a jobbing full-back with seven goals in his life, was thrust forward and responded with a hat-trick. The football Palace played both then and against Villa should help him shed the tag of a long-ball manager. That has dogged Warnock for years when his main philosophy has entailed commitment, not 50-yard balls.

But Warnock is aware of the popular perception of him, shaped as it is by rants about referees and set-pieces. He actually has a keen sense of humour. Wisecracks are a constant and there are times when Warnock appears to have taken a comedy act into his press conference. Earning a replay is a fine result both for the administrators, with Palace due to collect 40 per cent of the proceeds of the tie at Villa Park and for Warnock himself. Strange as it sounds now, he spurned Chelsea's advances to stay at Notts County and, at 61, it is unlikely he will ever manage the genuinely big club his achievements may have merited. He will probably be booed and barracked - he invariably is at away games - but, as the grateful Palace fans sang on Sunday, there's only one Neil Warnock.

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