EFL COLUMN: NEIL WARNOCK AND MICK MCCARTHY SHOW AGE REALLY IS JUST A NUMBER IN EFL MANAGEMENT
“This will be my last job – there won’t be another job in football for me,” revealed Neil Warnock as he thrust himself into the heat of a Championship relegation battle just a year on from managing in the Premier League.
His abrasive, in-your-face brand of management had seen him win a number of promotions but far fewer friends outside the clubs he managed, and he was determined to enjoy retirement with his wife Sharon at their home in Cornwall soon enough.
Warnock said this on the 11, October 2007 as he took the reins at Crystal Palace (for the first time) after resigning as Sheffield United manager following their controversial relegation from the Premier League five months beforehand.
The 72-year-old has had six further ‘last’ jobs since and has shown no signs of slowing despite contracting Covid-19 in September of last year. He comfortably kept Middlesbrough up after arriving post-lockdown last season, and this campaign he has led a squad that little was expected of to within touching distance of the second-tier play-offs.
On Saturday, he oversaw a 1-1 draw between Boro and his last employers, Cardiff City. The game passed with little intrigue on the pitch, but in the opposite dugout was the man that used to clean Warnock’s boots as an apprentice at Barnsley in the 1970’s.
It’s taken Mick McCarthy less than six weeks to guide Cardiff from the bottom half of the Championship to the play-off spots, and even though it’s still early enough to put the success down to a ‘new manager bounce’, it is hard not to feel the former Republic of Ireland manager is the perfect fit for the South Wales club.
McCarthy’s shock of grey hair perhaps leads many to think he is older than 62, but he has undoubtedly been grouped with a collection of managers who have regularly been written off as past their best in the last decade or so.
He was hounded out of Ipswich in 2018, sound tracked by choruses of ‘Mick McCarthy, your football is s***’ at Portman Road in his final weeks in charge - even though he had led the club to the Championship play-offs for the first time in ten years in 2015.
This frustration seems to be born from a similar sort of dissatisfaction that means Warnock has only managed in the Premier League for two and a half seasons of a 40-year managerial career.
The two managers – and the type of football their sides typically play – became to be seen as outdated or unsophisticated. They were relics of a by-gone era preaching a playing philosophy that was successful in the past, will suffice in the Championship, but is likely to ultimately come up short should it win you promotion.
Since the almost unbelievable level of success Pep Guardiola has had since being promoted to manager of the Barcelona first team at the age of just 37, clubs across Europe have been more and more willing to entrust younger coaches with the top job.
Recently retired players, particularly ones with links to the manager-less club in question, capture the imagination of chairmen and supporters alike as the allure of a playing legend being successful in the dugout can often prove too tempting to ignore.
This temptation effectively launched an asteroid of tiki-taka and gegenpressing in the direction of ‘tactical dinosaurs’ such as McCarthy and Warnock, but they have found a way to survive, adapt and re-find success.
When the Cardiff job became available after Neil Harris struggled to repeat the success he enjoyed in the second part of last season, a large section of Cardiff supporters were keen for a squad overhaul led by a progressive, young manager – Craig Bellamy’s name was mentioned regularly.
Therefore, when McCarthy was given the job until the end of the season within a day of Harris departing, it was widely criticised as short-term thinking that would do more harm than good to Cardiff in the long run.
But a run of nine games without a defeat, combined with the former Wolves and Sunderland managers’ vastly underappreciated charm, has seen him become a fans’ favourite in South Wales in no time.
The success of both McCarthy and Warnock was perhaps even on the mind of Bristol City CEO Mark Ashton when he took just five days to replace Dean Holden with the more experienced Nigel Pearson last week.
The dilemma of appointing a new manager is not as binary as old is good or vice versa, matching the characteristics of a prospective manager with the needs and capabilities of the squad of players has to be the primary concern.
The renaissance of two of the EFL’s most high-profile veterans does not denigrate the work of their younger counterparts at other clubs either. Steve Cooper (41) and Daniel Farke (44) could hardly be doing any better in their current roles at two of the Championship’s automatic promotion chasers and bright young coaches are littered across both League One and League Two.
Those that are successful are typically able to shape and adapt their game plans, playing style and training methods to the group of players at their disposal, and that is what both Warnock and McCarthy are currently doing so well.
Ultimately, should either Cardiff or Middlesbrough win promotion it would feel as though the footballing journeys of their veteran managers have come full circle, not only would it be vindication for both personally but yet another indication that you’re never too old to succeed as an EFL manager.