Cardiff City: Why is Neil Warnock so good at managing in the Championship?
The Yorkshire man has transformed Cardiff City from relegation candidates into promotion favourites on a shoestring budget. What is the recipe for his success?
Later this year Neil Warnock will celebrate his 70th birthday and with each passing week it appears more likely he will be a Premier League manager for the occasion. The Yorkshireman began his managerial career 38 years ago, but he has no plans of winding down his career just yet as he is in the midst of what promises to be his finest achievement to date.
Warnock’s Cardiff City sit second in the Championship – six points behind leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers, whom they host tonight, and whom they have a match advantage over. They sit five points clear of third-placed Fulham, who have also played a game less. The Bluebirds are unbeaten in 11 and while their eight-match winning run ended on Tuesday night, their last-minute equaliser at playoff-chasing Sheffield United may prove one of their most important goals of the campaign.
Few could have envisaged the Bluebirds’ rise when Warnock was appointed in October 2016, with the club second-from-bottom with just two wins in their opening 11 games. Their playing squad was not viewed as one capable of challenging at the top end of the league and neither was their budget.
Once again the Sheffield-born boss was written off but, now managing his 15th club, he has learned how to master England’s second tier. He has won promotion to the top flight with both Sheffield United and Queen’s Park Rangers, while he worked similar wonders at Rotherham United–whom he led before his move to Wales–battling off relegation against all the odds.
He has done a lot more than that in the Welsh capital, steering Cardiff to a top-half finish last season before continuing that progress this season. It is a testament to the club’s fine campaign that they could yet catch Wolves–who have led the division all season and possess a squad of players which many believe is the most talented ever to play in the league. The budget at Cardiff not only pales in comparison to that at Molineux but also to other promotion chasers such as Fulham and Aston Villa.
Warnock’s side hold minimal top-flight experience. Only Junior Hoilett, Armand Traore, Anthony Pilkington and Aron Gunnarsson have fleeting spells in the Premier League on their CVs, yet they now have lost just once in 15 outings, winning 11 of those in a run which outlines their solidity, application and team spirit.
They hold the fourth-best attacking record in the division (62 goals in 39 games) yet their real strength is in defence, which has yielded a division-low 33 strikes. The Bluebirds main strength is in the air, with Warnock ensuring his side are well-drilled at both attacking and defending set-pieces. Not blessed with the most technically talented squad in the division, their play is based on dominating territory, providing a threat through the middle yet also utilising the width of the pitch.
Warnock’s skill is identifying players within the Football League who command minimal fees yet can compete at the top end of the Championship. Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was a free signing from Walsall yet has not looked at all out of place in the race for the top flight and has proven pivotal in the promotion chase.
The 69-year-old boss won the March Championship Manager of the Month award. It was the 10th such gong of his career, a record in the division. He could yet pick up another before the season is out but that may not be the main prize he may celebrate.