NEIL WARNOCK’S near 14 months at the helm of Leeds United began amid a wave of optimism but ended on April Fool’s Day with the all-too-familiar feeling at Elland Road that another season had been wasted.
“The right club at the wrong time,” is how the 68-year-old today diplomatically describes a stint in charge that included the segueing of power from Ken Bates to GFH Capital and having to cope with the friction that is never far from the surface at a club where the supporters are at odds with the owners.
However, as Warnock today prepares to return to Elland Road for the first time since his departure in 2013, the Cardiff City manager admits there are plenty of memories he still cherishes despite the unhappy ending.
“I went there to win promotion but things just didn’t work out,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “The atmosphere just wasn’t right with the fans not happy at all.
“I honestly didn’t realise the flack that was coming the club’s way before I joined. If I had, I might not have taken the job. I ended up getting dragged into that.
“In fact, I don’t think anyone could have been successful faced with the same circumstances I had. That is why I tell people Leeds was probably the right club but at the wrong time.
“But, having said that, there were still some great days and nights along the way. The one that always stands out is Chelsea (in the League Cup quarter-finals) at home.
“We lost heavily (5-1), in the end. But, at half-time, we were in front and I do remember saying to my lad afterwards that the atmosphere in the first half was probably what it must have been like in the Champions League days.
“It was brilliant, the whole place was bouncing. The noise the fans made was incredible. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have that every week as the manager who took Leeds back into the Premier League? It didn’t work out for me but Leeds was the biggest club I have managed and I am glad I tried.”
Warnock’s appointment at Elland Road had come a little under 10 months prior to the Cup defeat to Chelsea that made such an impression on the lifelong Sheffield United fan.
Simon Grayson’s dismissal had created the vacancy and Warnock’s head was turned sufficiently by Leeds to reject the overtures of Wolverhampton Wanderers, then looking for Mick McCarthy’s successor.
Offered the job in Monaco on the Friday night, he initially planned to watch the following afternoon’s game with Doncaster Rovers from the stand. An abject first-half display, however, changed all that and by full-time the new manager was basking in a three points earned via Luciano Becchio’s winner eight minutes into stoppage time.
After such a dramatic start, the hope at Elland Road was that Warnock could inspire a late dart for the play-offs. The reality, though, was very different and Leeds finished 14th. When Warnock’s 62-game reign ended 11 months later, United were sitting just two places higher.
“I spent six months fighting fires and it became too much,” he recalls. “I still believe we only needed a bit of pace out wide and then we could have really challenged.
“Robert Snodgrass leaving (for Norwich City during the summer of 2013) buggered us up. After he left, I didn’t have anyone good enough to give us a threat. You can’t replace someone like ‘Snod’ with a free transfer, it just doesn’t work like that.”
Warnock’s return to management at Crystal Palace came a year or so after his exit from Leeds. He then went on to take charge of QPR and Rotherham United before the opportunity to succeed Paul Trollope at Cardiff arrived in early October.
He has faced the Elland Road club twice since leaving and won both times, the most recent of those coming during last season’s ‘Great Escape’ for the Millers.
Today, though, will bring a first return to Elland Road as a visiting manager for an encounter that will also double as Sol Bamba’s reunion with his former employers.
Bamba started this season in West Yorkshire as captain but had his contract cancelled shortly after the summer transfer window had closed.
A month later, the Ivory Coast international had become one of Warnock’s first signings.
His time in south Wales has not been without incident, the defender clashing with Warnock after a red card at Ipswich Town in December and later issuing a public apology. Despite that, the Bluebirds chief retains full faith in Bamba.
“Sol is looking forward to it,” added Warnock. “And I must thank the Leeds fans. There were all sorts of messages on Twitter when Sol signed for us, saying things like: ‘Give him three games and he will be a disaster’.
“I pinned them up in the dressing room and told Sol: ‘They are right, you play like an accident waiting to happen and that has to change’. Fair play to Sol, he has been excellent and put in some great performance so I have the Leeds fans to thank for that.”
Leeds, of course, have had their own recent touchline troubles following Garry Monk’s clash with David Wagner at the end of last Sunday’s derby defeat at Huddersfield Town.
“I can’t condone a manager getting involved in anything like that,” laughed the Cardiff manager when asked about coming up against Monk today. “No, seriously, I think Garry should be manager of the year for what he has done this season.
“I have been there so know what it can be like when things don’t go Leeds’ way. That was what happened early in the season but Garry stuck at it and came through. And I honestly do hope he can take Leeds up.”