By Phil Hay
Neil Warnock’s contractual position is slightly unusual.
Managers are generally fired long before the end of their contracts or bought out of them by other clubs. It is rare – though, as David Moyes is demonstrating, not unique – for a deal to run as low as Warnock’s has.
Moyes and Everton are involved in a high-stakes stand-off in which Moyes holds the cards. Everton would like to keep him – of course they would – but Moyes is asking awkward questions about ambition and future intentions. His contract expires in the summer and he is starting to wonder if another year at Goodison Park would be worth his while.
The situation at Leeds United is more benign. That the club’s owners have not sought to initiate contract talks with Warnock nor Warnock asked for contract talks with them tells you everything you need to know about where this is heading. “Judge me on this season,” was Warnock’s message on Thursday and you suspect that Leeds United will. His deal ends in June.
The scenario of a manager with a dwindling contract was an inevitability when Warnock agreed terms 12 months ago. He had no intention of bedding in for years, hence why the deal he signed was 18 months long. A clause allowing him to walk away freely before the end of May, 2012 was included because, at the age of 63, Warnock was precious about a year which might be his last in management. He did not want to trade it for a mid-table finish.
As it happens, a mid-table finish might be all he has to show for a full season at Elland Road. The play-offs tease and flutter their eye-lids but Leeds are worse off now than they were when the board at Leeds sacked Simon Grayson with 28 games played and 42 points gained.
It is, as Warnock said himself, a long shot to promotion. And in those circumstances, what is there to say about his future?
Had Leeds cut through the Championship as Queens Park Rangers did in 2010, Warnock and United’s directors would have been round the table before Christmas. He would have had GFH Capital nailing him to the floor once the takeover documents were signed. You do not play games with successful managers and Everton must be sweating about theirs. But nor do you dive in to reward a record which, all complications of the job considered, falls a long way short of special.
Warnock’s comments on Thursday went far enough to imply that if Leeds fall short of promotion or do not at least qualify for the Championship’s play-offs, he does not expect another chance. “My future will be decided on the football field. All I can do is get promotion.”
In fairness to him, he has barely changed his tune. When he took the job in February of last year, he talked about being a one-season wonder. Beyond that, he spoke about retirement. At no stage has he swerved the original brief or attempted to buy more time. Unsatisfying though it will be for him if this season peters out, he seems willing to let this period of his career run its course and be judged accordingly.
He is, in any case, the manager of a club where bigger pictures are being drawn. Leeds have been under new ownership for seven short weeks but even their owners, new to the job as they are, might not dictate the club’s outlook alone.
When GFH Capital bought United in December, their employees spoke about finding “strategic investors” – wealthy backers to you and me – at the earliest opportunity. It is apparent that the Dubai-based firm has been pursuing such investors in the weeks since its buy-out and, according to two sources spoken to by the YEP this week, is currently offering shares in United in return for a cash injection.
The company’s director, Salem Patel, made that intention plain when he spoke on December 21, saying GFH Capital would “bring the right people on board – whether that’s management, shareholders or investors” while stressing the firm’s intention to retain a stake in United. A new chairman is due to be appointed in the summer, replacing Ken Bates after eight-and-a-half years, and the structure of senior management at Elland Road could look very different if new shareholders arrive. From the highest level down, Leeds are a club in transition.
There is a train of thought which says the lack of clarity over Warnock’s future and GFH Capital’s plans for him is a problem for the club. On the contrary, United’s owners are better keeping their thoughts to themselves. Extending Warnock’s deal at this juncture would be illogical and unnecessary, in part because Warnock is not even asking for it. But to give the impression that the 64-year-old will be thanked and sent on his way in the summer would undermine him and what is left of the season. A vote of no confidence creates a lame duck.
As it is, the club have the best of both worlds – a manager who is willing to risk his neck on the next 17 games and the freedom to do as they please in May without being compromised by the cost of severing contracts held by their coaching staff. It might be that when the summer comes Warnock is still their man but what sense is there in drawing that conclusion now? There will come a point where the conversation is unavoidable. Until then, Leeds have a season to settle.