Say what you like about Middlesbrough’s Marmite manager – most people do – but you cannot knock his passion for the game.
At an age where he should know better, there he is every match-day, an old man in a tracksuit seemingly in training for a heart attack. You wonder if the only reason he has not had one is because God does not want a puce-faced Yorkshireman outside the Pearly Gates demanding to know why more years were not added onto his life for the timewasting of others.
The only thing close to the sharpness of his tongue is his mind. He had used all five substitutes when he sent another, Sam Morsy, to warm up late on. With Millwall desperately trying to eat up the clock as they sat on a 1-0 lead, as soon as the ball went out, Morsy scampered after it, the ballboy in a bib.
Fourth official Declan Bourne probably thought he was getting the full brunt of Warnock’s fury when the 72-year-old chased after him, demanding to know why he signalled just three minutes’ stoppage time even though he later admitted his side “played some decent stuff on a difficult surface without making clear chances” in the second half.
At full-time the spoilsport on the tannoy turned Status Quo up to 11 so, just when we most wanted to, for the first time in ages we could not hear Warnock as he stomped over to referee James Linnington. To the soundtrack of Rocking All Over the World we watched a Basil Fawlty-esque whirl of arms, only imagining how many times another word ending in “cking” was leaving Warnock’s lips.
Warnock never mentioned either in his press conference because the people firmly in his sights were his own strikers.
“Unacceptable” and “non-existent” were two verbal rockets he launched.
“I’ve never been as disappointed in the strikers as I was today,” he said, never knowingly understated, of “one of the most frustrating afternoons this season”.
“You can’t play without strikers. I can’t remember anything sticking. Crikey, I’m 72 and I could have put more effort in.”
They were just his greatest hits.
“I have to bite my tongue a bit,” he said, hence him pussyfooting around so diplomatically. “Some of them might not want to compete against a tough, physical Millwall side.”
Chuba Akpom and Yannick Bolasie – two Warnock signings – were hauled off along with Djed Spence in a triple half-time substitution even though Marcus Tavernier made way injured at the end of the first half.
“There could have been two or three others I brought off who I was disappointed in as well,” he made sure we knew.
If it does not say much for Akpom and Bolasie, it says even less for Britt Assombalonga, who did not make the 20-man squad. Asked if the centre-forward was injured, Warnock could easily have fabricated an ailment.
“I thought it was time to give Josh (Coburn) a bit of experience away from home and I’d always bring Fletch (Ashley Fletcher) on before him (Assombalonga) at the moment,” he explained.
Had Middlesbrough got the two goals they pushed hard for in the second half without ever making you believe they would get either, results elsewhere might have kept the candle of a Championship play-off push flickering, but it seems to be going out.
“If we play like we did in the first half we’re not going to get another point,” raged Warnock.
Change is coming this summer, and the onus is on the present squad to ensure they are not part of it. Or in the case of 18-year-old Coburn, that he is.
Despite outscoring every team below them bar Blackburn Rovers, strikers have been Boro’s Achilles heel in recent seasons. “Josh might have had an opportunity today when you look at how we played,” said his manager. “It was like playing with eight men at times. Next season we should have 11.”
Not that Warnock was entirely blameless for the dismal first half, selecting an odd formation the wily Jed Wallace exploited. There were three at the back, three in front, Tavernier in the hole and in Warnock’s eyes two very false nines, then Paddy McNair running up and down the inside-left channel between holding midfielder Johnny Howson and Tavernier.
With no-one doing the same to Howson’s right, it left a vacuum Wallace regularly filled, and Spence was incapable of dealing with him. Balls behind left centre-back Marc Bola caused problems on the other side, too.
Inevitably, Wallace took advantage. When Spence lost the ball after 32 minutes, Billy Mitchell fed the striker, who streaked past Howson and drilled a cross into the net off Grant Hall to deny Marcus Bettinelli a deserved clean sheet. It meant by the time Boro switched to 3-5-2 at half-time, Millwall could swamp the area, ensuring only two shots made it through to the target.
Warnock was fabulously furious about it all. Boro lack a few things but not passion in the technical area.
Millwall: Bialkowski; McNamara (Romeo 86), Hutchinson, M Wallace, Cooper, Malone (Pearce 86); Evans, Woods (Williams 80), Mitchell; J Wallace (Bradshaw 80), Bennett (Bodvarsson 64). Unused substitutes: Fielding, Ferguson, Mahoney, Burey.
Middlesbrough: Bettinelli; Fry, Hall, Bola; Spence (Mendez-Laing 46), Howson, Johnson; McNair (Kebano 80), Tavernier (Saville 45); Bolasie (Watmore 46), Akpom (Fletcher 46). Unused substitutes: Morsy, Archer, Fisher, Coburn.
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