By Leon Wobschall
February 18 marked the first anniversary of Neil Warnock’s fraught time in charge of Leeds United.
You would probably have struggled to find a more inauspicious occasion.
Don’t expect for one minute that anything resembling a celebration – even in the loosest sense of the word – will have taken place at United’s Thorp Arch training ground among Warnock and his staff.
Or for that matter among United’s multitude of the punch-drunk supporters, who suffered another blow to the solar plexus after witnessing the tortuous FA Cup exit at the hands of Manchester City in a TV shocker on Sunday afternoon.
The milestone was truly a cursory one. While in an ideal world, Warnock would have been envisaging his side preparing for a definitive business end of the season which would hopefully culminate in a record eighth promotion to guild his hitherto impressive managerial career on his first anniversary, the reality has proved starkly different. And how.
For the third time in the space of five weeks – and for the second successive away game – the 64-year-old was subjected to chants of “Warnock, time to go” during Sunday’s wretched 4-0 loss at the Etihad Stadium – with the former Sheffield United and QPR chief admitting for the first time after the game he was prepared to leave United before his planned exit in May if owners GFH Capital felt it was in the club’s best interests.
It’s all a far cry from 12 months ago when Warnock breezed through the doors at Elland Road with a fair bit of fanfare. Just as Whites legend Gordon Strachan did when he arrived at Middlesbrough in October 2009, only to step down just under a year later.
In Warnock, here was the no-nonsense manager to whip United into organisational shape and collectively get them to ‘man up’, sort out the flakiest of defences and bring some spirit back into a demoralised and fractious dressing room which was laid bare in the final weeks of the Simon Grayson era.
In those areas, perhaps Warnock’s biggest success has been in uniting a playing camp that palpably lacked spirit a year ago.
But while the effort has been there, the quality has by and large been negligible, with the Achilles heel of a leaky back four, which has bedevilled United since their return to the second tier, also stubbornly refusing to be repaired.
Ahead of taking his place in the stand for the home derby with Doncaster Rovers after being appointed on the morning of February 18 last year, Warnock will have looked at the Championship table and seen the sight of United in 11th place with 45 points after 31 games.
It won’t be lost on many supporters that is almost a mirror image of where Leeds find themselves now, albeit one place lower and three points worse off in 12th spot – eight points behind the team in the final play-off position in Middlesbrough and interestingly only the same amount in front of the side currently third-from-bottom, in Barnsley.
Just as with last season, United remain marooned in the Championship never-never land, one of number of clubs with grand designs on recovering what they see as their rightful place in the top-flight, but without a firm and coherent strategy to achieve that which resonates with fans.
United have stood still and failed to move on during a static 12 months.
In mitigation, Warnock has regularly voiced his frustrations at the behind-the-scenes situation at United – a common theme of a forgettable campaign, where the only light that has been provided has come courtesy of both domestic cups.
But despite mounting a defence of his time at the club, insisting after Sunday’s game that he ‘deserved a medal’ given what has gone on away from the pitch, you sense he is passing the point of no return with many Whites supporters, with the vast majority of the 6,100 fans who headed across the M62 to the Etihad delivering their own withering verdict in song. A saying goes that if you lose your away supporters, your hardcore fans who follow their team week-in and week-out, you are in big trouble.
And whatever your take on whether Whites supporters have been within their rights to call for Warnock’s head or not, United’s faithful, as the song says, ‘do what they want’ and say what they want as Warnock is unfortunately finding out for his sake, with his time at Leeds becoming a sad postscript to a largely distinguished managerial career.
Offering his own take on Warnock’s arduous first year in charge, former Whites captain Brendan Ormsby said: “Neil has so much experience at these levels in football and when he took over, I thought that he was probably one of the best men we could get at that moment as Neil knows the divisions inside out and the players he needs.
“But looking at it, I think he hasn’t set things on fire here really, apart from two decent cup runs. But cup runs are always just a bonus for clubs like us, the league is the bread and butter and what you are judged on.
“The games against Chelsea, Southampton and Everton were all well and good. But the fans will be looking at the league and thinking: ‘Where the hell are we?’ Quite simply, the team is nowhere near good enough for the Premier League and that was proved on Sunday.
“I do not think some of the players that Neil has brought in have been good enough and some of them are below the level we need to get out of this league.
“I have previously thought there wasn’t that much difference between the Premier League and the Championship. But you could really see there was at Manchester City.
“On the pitch, although it is not nice to say, we were totally outclassed and outplayed.
“You could see the difference between the two teams in terms of the two levels they are playing at and when it got to 2-0, I thought it was going to be a cricket score.
“In terms of the criticism of Neil, I actually had earphones as I was working, but I was told the Leeds fans were singing: ‘You’re nothing special, we get beat every week’ and I know the supporters were also having another go at Neil after doing so at Middlesbrough.
“That’s the way it goes, I’m afraid.”