When Neil Warnock was sacked by Crystal Palace shortly after Christmas in 2014, he must have believed his time as a Premier League manager was over for good. That was the Yorkshireman’s third stint in the first division of English football, and his inability to keep the Eagles out of the relegation zone confirmed many people’s suspicions that he was simply not cut out for life at the top table.
Warnock himself has not exactly shied away from the perception that his style of management is better suited to the divisions below the Premier League.
“I didn’t enjoy the Premier League, if I’m honest. It is not my cup of tea,” he said after Cardiff’s victory over Barnsley last season. “This is my cup of tea: lads that go through brick walls for you at places like this on a Tuesday night. It is amazing what you can do with team spirit. That is my forte.”
“I don't enjoy it like the Championship, everybody knows that,” Warnock reiterated ahead of his side’s meeting with Burnley in September.
Given his well-documented view of the top flight, there was talk that Warnock could walk away from the Cardiff City Stadium after winning promotion with the Bluebirds last term. Yet while he openly prefers the “muck and nettles” of the Championship, the veteran manager was also motivated by a desire to prove people wrong – and, against the odds, he has started to do that in recent weeks.
Little was expected of Cardiff prior to the start of the campaign, particularly as the club failed to add proven Premier League quality to their squad in the summer transfer market. The Welsh outfit collected two points from their first three matches, drawing 0-0 with both Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town, but then proceeded to lose each of their next five outings to sink to the foot of the table.
October’s meeting with fellow strugglers Fulham was therefore billed as a must-win – and Cardiff did not disappoint. A 4-2 triumph saw them climb above the dreaded dotted line, and although Warnock’s men were then beaten by Liverpool and Leicester City, a return of two wins from their last three games has given the Bluebirds fresh hope that survival might not be an impossible objective after all.
Cardiff conceded the first goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Friday night, Matt Doherty firing the ball home from close range after the hosts had failed to clear a Joao Moutinho corner. They once again demonstrated tremendous character and resilience, though, coming from behind to win for the third time this season thanks to second-half strikes from Aron Gunnarsson and Junior Hoilett.
There is little sophistication to Cardiff’s game plan. Warnock’s charges are the most direct team in the division – their pass completion rate of 63.9 is considerably lower than all 19 of their Premier League rivals – and rely heavily on set-pieces, including long throws from Gunnarsson. Sean Morrison is excellent in the air and is usually the target for Cardiff’s deliveries into the opposition box, and on Friday they demonstrated their useful knack for keeping the ball alive after the first header, with both goals coming indirectly from set-play situations.
“I was really proud of them tonight,” Warnock told Sky Sports after the game. “We were 1-0 down at half-time – I didn't think we deserved to be, but that's how it was. I thought, second half, we were on the front foot most of the time. I thought we wanted it more tonight.”
Having suffered relegation with Sheffield United in 2007 and been dismissed by both Queens Park Rangers and Crystal Palace midway through a Premier League campaign, the 70-year-old Warnock would love nothing more than leading Cardiff to safety this season.
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