Warnock's chance finally arrives
After a fifteen season wait, Neil Warnock finally has the opportunity to manage in the Premiership.
And perhaps Warnock wouldn't have it any other way; because now he leads his boyhood club into the big league for the first time in 12 years.
A Blades fan of such a degree that he is almost always at the top of any Owls' most hated list, Warnock has achieved promotion after six years at Bramall Lane, the ground he once confessed that, in bouts of the insomnia no doubt familiar to all football managers, driving to in the middle of the night to stand in the centre-circle to take in the splendour of his surroundings.
Despite his self-proclamation as '100% Blade', the Warnock road has, characteristically, not always been smooth and 2005/6 was widely viewed as his last chance at the club; he even wavered about joining Portsmouth midway through last season as United's great start to the season began to falter in the slipstream of runaway Reading. The play-offs, where Blades perished in 2003, were avoided and Warnock was granted a one-year extension to his contract.
And the media-savvy of Warnock is set to be exposed in the keenest of lights. Typically, his excitable nature will see him banned from manning the touchlines for the opening four games, with the curtain-raiser with Liverpool having to be watched from the depths of the stands.
His team bear all the hallmarks of his idiosyncracies; he has a raft of strikers, none of whom could be considered prolific. Rob Hulse is the latest addition to the attacking arsenal and has a fair bit to live up to with his £2.2m fee from Leeds. He shows the usual Warnock hallmarks of being hard-working, strong and not exactly prolific.
And he will join several forwards just like him: Ade Akinbiyi is notorious for his lack of Premiership class, so too veteran Neil Shipperley, who spent an entire season at Crystal Palace in 2004/5 without starting a game in the top echelon. Steve Kabba and Danny Webber share characteristics of possessing ability but perhaps not the strength or consistency for Warnock to fully believe in them.
In short; there is no such thing as a trusted strike partnership where Warnock is concerned. Though perhaps the lack of a loan market may effect a change in this approach. Though at 58, the old dog may not fancy altering his tricks too much.
Another Warnock trait is his love and lauding of the veteran warhorse. And, despite Stuart McCall's final accepting of the onset of age to join Warnock in the dug-out, he has plenty of those to field. Alan Wright, once of Blackburn and Villa, joins Craig Short and David Unsworth in the defensive unit while Keith Gillespie is now in the over-30 bracket as Bramall Lane provides the latest staging post for a talent that has never reached the heights of his early days at the Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle.
Veteran keeper Ian Bennett has also joined the ageing throng to back up portly Paddy Kenny, a man whose cherubic appearance masks a fine shot stopper. The Irish international is a cult figure in whom Warnock has placed a great deal of faith, having brought him from former club Bury, and who played every game in the promotion season.
Three products of the youth system in Michael Tonge, Nick Montgomery and Phil Jagielka are to be given the Premiership stage their manager has long hailed them as deserving.
Mancunian Tonge came to the club via Old Trafford at 16 and, while the glittering form of twin cup runs in 2001/2 has not yet been repeated his influence from the left wing is still an important part of the Warnock plan. His strike against Sheffield Wednesday last season in a game swathed in controversy over Warnock's future, was Blades' best of the season and Tonge, once courted by leading Premiership clubs, will now get the chance to prove he is up to the standard required.
Montgomery's hard work in midfield make him a crowd favourite but the jewel in the steel crown is Jagielka, a player once labelled 'our Vieira' by Warnock. 'Jags', like Tonge, another man from across the Snake Pass, is capable of playing with distinction in both midfield and defence and has even been Kenny's deputy between the sticks.
In defence, Barnsley-born Chris 'Morgs' Morgan, the club captain, faces a tough step up but will not be found wanting in the desire stakes. His brand of well-meaning yeomanry may well reflect the side's potential soft underbelly. Pace and skill is lacking with perhaps two Jagielkas needed - one for defence, one for midfield. And fans will have to wait to see record £3m signing Claude Davis after a knee injury sustained against Notts County in pre-season. Until he arrives it will be either 38-year-old Short or 35-year-old Chris Lucketti to fill in.
Warnock's team's playing style is hardly likely to be pretty with hard work the ethic that will save them from instant demotion. A straight 4-4-2 is the favoured formation with Tonge and one of Montgomery or Gillespie to provide inspiration from the flanks with the centre of midfield manned by two destroyers.
Those Sheffield Wednesday fans envious at their bitter rivals' presence in the division they have been absent from since 2000 will be a deeper shade of green at the presence of three former Owls in Leigh Bromby, Derek Geary and Alan Quinn with Bromby being one of the classier candidates of the massed ranks of defenders at Warnock's beck and call.
Long-time residents in the latter stages of the cup competitions, where a few Premiership scalps have been taken, Blades finally have a chance to cut it with the big boys week-on-week.
Warnock's motormouth and win-at-all-costs approach should see him towards the top of the league in managerial column inches. Ever the self-publicist, he won't mind that. But he'd swap it for 17th in the league come the evening of Sunday 13th May.