By Phil Hay
Neil Warnock lives to contest another game but it is only a matter of time. He knows it and Leeds United know it. When it comes, expect the decision to be mutual and amicable; a parting of ways between a club and a manager who see no other way.
Promotion was the alternative and the figures no longer add up. If United scramble into the play-offs, they will threaten club and Championship records by getting there. More sober calculation says Leeds are destined for something in the bracket of 60 to 65 points, the division’s middle ground. In this instance, it is grounds for divorce.
GFH Capital, United’s owner, finds itself in a delicate position at a time when its authority is fragile. The firm’s management of this situation will say much about its conviction and its understanding of English football.
Mathematically, Leeds will stay within reach of the play-offs until some time in April but mathematics matter less than gut instinct. It would be wrong to pull the carpet from under Warnock with undue haste. It would be more unforgivable to dangle him indefinitely and ask him to soak up worsening dissent.
Tuesday’s defeat at the Riverside and the rancour it produced must have sharpened Warnock’s perception of how this might end. He has the crowd on his back and no feasible way of fighting them off. He can offer blind hope after the results in Wolverhampton and Middlesbrough but few around him are buying that this will be a messy and distasteful execution if GFH Capital confuses decent timing with nervous indecision. Whatever the prevailing view of Warnock, he has not earned that.
It is for his sake rather than the club’s that United’s board cannot delay much longer. Prolonging Warnock’s employment barely precludes them from planning behind closed doors or mapping out next season, and they have months on their side. But the failure to make anything of critical games at Wolves and Middlesbrough has made a pronouncement on his position necessary. This is not a coach with three years on his contract. It is a coach whose tenure will go no further than May. That might matter less if he and United’s crowd were engaging in a long and affectionate goodbye like Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest but their relationship is fraught and spiteful. At the very least, it would be wise for GFH Capital to state that his role now is to hold the reins while Leeds find a successor.
He and representatives of United’s owner were due to meet today, though it is not clear whether the family bereavement which led director David Haigh to postpone Monday night’s fans’ forum also led to the cancellation of their discussions with Warnock. It is known that Haigh attended Thorp Arch yesterday. As and when they speak, they owe him some honesty about how they see the future and intend to deal with him. They are likely to find that his enthusiasm for another season in the Championship is strangely in tune with those supporters who want him to leave.
Warnock confessed as much when he said last weekend that he was “not really happy living on my own with my family 300 miles away”. Certain things would make that arrangement worthwhile – promotion for one and a third chance to mix it in the Premier League for another – but he does not need work for work’s sake. You might ask if that has been one of the problems. His reign when it ends will go down as an experiment which never got going at any stage, despite attracting huge majorities in various opinion polls a year ago. Leeds back then were not lumbered with a clone of Dennis Wise; when Warnock came to Elland Road, most supporters got the manager they asked for.
On the question of who they want next, there is a prevalent suggestion: one of English football’s more eligible bachelors, the recently sacked Nigel Adkins. The 47-year-old has the looks and mannerisms of a sixth-form college lecturer but Leeds will find few out-of-work coaches with ticks in more boxes: the ability to work skilfully within his budget, a track record of competence at three levels of the pyramid – the Premier League included – and confidence which exceeds his profile.
At Southampton, he also showed himself to be a tactful operator in circumstances which required diplomacy. He was backed with serious money by the board at St Mary’s but monitored, too, by a single-minded and eccentric chairman in Nicola Cortese, the man who sacked him without warning last month.
The local newspaper, the Daily Echo, has been banned from St Mary’s for longer than its journalists can remember and the club are involved in a bitter and public legal dispute with Matt Le Tissier. A coach there earns his money. But in amongst all that, Adkins amassed a record of 67 wins from 124 games.
He and Leeds have the makings of a neat fit. He is unattached which might suit a club whose shares are seemingly for sale again, but Adkins is in need of a job himself with a club befitting his growing profile. Some close to Adkins doubt whether another Premier League team will come calling, and the upper half of the Championship is short of clubs with managers on their last legs. More notably, he demonstrated at Southampton the ability to implement a vision and pursue it over a prolonged period.
One of the problems for Warnock was that this season was win or bust. From the outset, he risked the scenario of fading into mid-table and finding that his stated reasons for being here no longer applied. It contributed to the growth of impatience at Elland Road, impatience which is reaching an intolerable level. There are times when the job looks impossible, so intense is the disillusionment created by nine seasons in the Football League.
It would help for Leeds to appoint a manager with the remit to win promotion but win it in his own time. That applies to Adkins or whoever else who GFH Capital choose to turn to. But the point about Adkins is that he is available and approachable. The call should go out to him. And if it does, you suspect it will be made with Warnock’s blessing.