In the winter of his managerial career, festive games in front of partisan fans – if not necessarily friends on this occasion – are usually embraced by the veteran manager. Tonight will be different at a cold and deserted Hillsborough in his home city.
Speaking before the shock late night sacking of Sheffield Wednesday counterpart Tony Pulis on Monday, Middlesbrough Warnock chief observed: “It is better when there are fans there and I do enjoy the banter with the Wednesdayites and I have always enjoyed that over the years.
“It is great driving back up to Hillsborough. It brings back memories of when I was a kid.
“My first game watching in Sheffield was a Sheffield Wednesday game under the floodlights. The only thing I remember is a lad called (Norman) Curtis, who was a full-back playing well and the ginger-haired lad, (Colin) Dobson.
“I thought it was a great atmosphere and I was stood on the Kop with the Wednesdayites and everyone used to mix in those days and you did not have segregation.”
On no fans being there on this occasion tonight, the Boro chief quipped: “I am hoping that there are stewards when I get off the bus, so I get a bit of stick. That’s my only option.
“It (no fans) is a fact of life and I just hope we can get back to some normality in the next few months. The quicker this vaccine comes out, the better and I would like mine tomorrow.”
These two sides were both in the relegation mix at the tailend of last season, with the Teessiders having travelled in a different direction since.
Fifteen places and 20 points separate Boro and Wednesday, who had won just once in 10 matches under Pulis before owner Dejphon Chansiri felt it necessary to pull the trigger, criticising the former Stoke City and West Brom boss’s record as ‘unacceptable’.
“The performances and results have not been of the level expected since Tony Pulis was appointed,” blasted the Owls chairman, adding: “On the pitch, seven points from a possible 30 is not acceptable.
“It is vital we maintain our Championship status and I feel I must make a change now with over half of the season remaining to give us the best possible chance of doing so.”
Despite a meagre return of just seven points from a possible 30 during the tenure of the Welshman, Warnock clearly believed that the Owls would have won their fight to avoid relegation under Pulis, citing his rival’s long managerial career as evidence.
“You do not get as much success as Tony has had without having a formula,” said Warnock, totally unaware of the fate that was to befall his opposite number later on in the day. “You cannot knock it; it is easy to criticise, but he has done it over a long period.
“I think he will get them out of the bottom three as well and they will just manage to get above that before the end of the season.”
Tonight’s game would have seen Pulis face Boro for the first time since leaving Teesside at the end of the 2018-19 season.
His tenure there may have been underwhelming for many, but some revisionists view it in a more favourable light at a time when he stabilised the club and brought down the wage bill when he was managing the club very much for the chairman.
Before his premature departure from the Owls, Pulis spoke fondly of his time in the north-east and had been delighted to have witnessed their recent upturn under Warnock.
“I have got very fond memories of the club,” he said. “It is a fabulous club; everyone there. They have got one of the best chairmen in Steve Gibson. When I was there, there was a lot of work to do to clear an enormous amount of wasted money.
“But Neil (Warnock) has done a great job there. At this level, I don’t think there is a better manager.”
Last six games: Sheffield Wednesday LLLWD; Middlesbrough WLLWWW.
Referee: G Eltringham (Tyne & Wear).
Last time: Sheffield Wednesday 1 Middlesbrough 2, July 22, 2020; Championship.
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