“What is dead may never die… but rises again harder and stronger” – Iron Islands prayer to the Drowned God, Game of Thrones
Cardiff City have been relegated and that means that we have, unfortunately, lost Neil Warnock from the Premier League. Take a moment if you need one. But that doesn’t mean that we have seen the last of him. Neil Warnock, like death, taxes, Thanos and British people assembling en masse in pub gardens the moment a single ray of light breaks through the usually impenetrable wall of cloud that envelopes this miserable country, is inevitable. In him, the greatest football league in the entire world (if you don’t watch any other football league) has lost one of the last true disruptors there is, with football now crawling out of the mud towards a sleek, ultra-modern, slightly soulless rendering of the beautiful game.
The actual best league in the world, the Championship, has regained one of its most notorious conquerors. Maybe there is some balance that has been restored. Whatever you think of Neil Warnock, and Neil Warnock’s semi-unique melancholy football (Tony Pulis is still out there, remember), and Neil Warnock’s personality, an eternal state of being as abrasive as a cactus wrapped in sandpaper, you have to admit that he is… a football manager. He has, undeniably, managed football teams and even more than that, has been reasonably successful at managing them.
He has, however, never been granted an opportunity to really shine, to show the world exactly what Hartlepool United’s Players of the Season 1971/72 could do if he wasn’t wasting his talents managing the menagerie of forgotten teams littering the middle reaches of the football league.
Watching Neil Warnock on the touchline before the game in which he got relegated, against Crystal Palace, literally squaring up to a television camera, I couldn’t help but feel that here, in front of us, was a man crying out for something more. Something better.
I decided to give him that. I decided to give him the world. Barcelona, Lionel Messi… meet Neil Warnock, perhaps the best-worst football manager the universe has ever seen.
In an artist's studio
Neil Warnock's reign at Barcelona begins in utterly dominant fashion. In their first proper game of the season, and the very first chance to win silverware he is awarded, Warnock grabs it with both hands. And then throttles it dead to the ground.
Barcelona, in a functional, new-look 4-1-4-1 formation, run riot against a Sevilla side that were perhaps still anticipating the fluid, liquid football of old. No, no, no, Pablo Machin. This is a Barcelona team you haven't seen before. And they are physical. And clinical. And dickheads. Oh god are they dickheads.
Despite winning 4-0, Barca commit 20 fouls during the game (twice as many as their opponent). They are also ruthless in front of goal, burying four of the eight shots they have on target in the game. Luis Suarez, clearly exhilarated by the prospect of playing for a manager people dislike even more than him, is given a perfect 10.0 rating for a performance that includes two goals and two assists. Lionel Messi, playing as a traditional right midfielder, has a relatively quiet (for him) outing but still achieves an 8.0 rating. The early signs are good.
They say God made man in his own image. Johan Cruyff did the same with Barcelona. We are one game in, and Neil Warnock is already remoulding the clay; mashing up the historic, high cheekbone structure of this team into his own grizzled reflection.
And I am absolutely here for it.
Light and then dark and then light again
I am worried. Neil Warnock breezes through his first five games as Barcelona manager with a perfect record, scoring 13 and only conceding a single goal.
In the first La Liga game of the season Huesca are swatted aside 2-0. Even more concerning is the 61% possession Barcelona achieve during the game, and the fact both goals come from their new workhorse wide-midfield pairing of Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho.
An identical result happens away at Eibar, with a similarly impressive amount of possession and standout performances coming from all over the pitch. Pique plays a 9.0, Suarez scores both goals for an 8.8 and Messi takes home the man of the match award, sparkling from the right wing with a 9.1.
After the game Warnock will describe the performance as a 'good solid game' from the best player in the history of football.
Their first real test comes with the visit of that other famously pure Basque football entity, Athletic Bilbao, who battle manfully against Warnock's team but ultimately succumb to an 82nd minute winner from Coutinho. Messi, again, is awarded a 9.0 and another overly large bottle of champagne he almost certainly won't drink for his efforts.
The first Champions League game of the season, away at Hoffenheim, is their best performance yet, as every single player achieves a rating of 7.0 and they stroll to a comfortable 3-0 victory.
Whisper it quietly, but has Neil Warnock taken one of the most dominant footballing in modern footballing history and... made them better?
The retort comes quickly and decisively: no. Of course he hasn't. Don't be fucking stupid. Don't be fucking ridiculous.
Barcelona quickly lose three on the trot: 3-2 at home to Valencia, 3-2 away at Levante and 3-0 away to Real Betis.
Luis Suarez, who has been Warnock's standout player thus far, picks up an injury early in the Valencia game, meaning that 5 foot 7 inch Lionel Messi is tasked with leading the line on his own with every other midfielder stationed around fifty metres behind him. And that isn't the only problem they start facing.
Like an overenthusiastic puppy gnawing at a brand new cream leather sofa, the Barcelona players appear to be taking to Warnock's robust approach a bit too eagerly and the disciplinary problems are already beginning to surface.
After the defeat to Valencia their manager Marcelino publicly scolds Warnock and his players, telling the press he is "disgusted" and that the style has "no place in football". It is clear that Neil Warnock will be as popular a figure in La Liga as he is in the Premiership, where he regularly stares down officials after the game, TV cameras before it and tells other managers to fuck off if they want to shake hands.
The Valencia player he is claiming fell victim to the unnecessary Barcelona aggression, by the way, is none other than former Arsenal shin-kicker extraordinaire Francis Coquelin. Make of that what you will.
Against Levante they go 3-0 down inside 25 minutes thanks to an early Gerard Pique red card and a Borja Mayoral hat-trick. They fight back admirably with ten men, but ultimately don't do enough to earn a point. Understandably given the nature of the results, the fans have something of a meltdown on social media with the reaction as far-ranging as: "Well, that was grim" to "Neil Warnock is doing a fine job with this formation", and "Like the way we're playing!" to "Just got back from the match, wish I'd stayed at home".
This is not what Los Culés are used to and they are baffled.
It's clear that they don't know what to make of Neil Warnock on the coast of the Mediterranean.
They needn't have worried too much about attempting to understand the manager who looks a bit like a disgruntled Primary School dinner lady as everything was summed up perfectly in their next game, this time at home to Manchester United in the Champions League.
Warnock's men responded to the bad run of form with a shithouse 1-0 win, the only goal of the game coming in the 89th minute from substitute Kevin Prince-Boateng. A 2-0 away win at Girona follows, where somehow they have 67% possession but still manage to commit 17 fouls (!). Barcelona produce only three shots on target.
Glance at the scoreline and things might appear the same. Dig a little bit deeper, though, and they are very, very different.
Neil's at the wheel and he's driving a tank into the ocean
Like Newton's Cradle, Barcelona's form continues to swing back and forth from 'actually very good' to 'completely and utterly abysmal'. For instance: a 3-0 win over Lyon in the Champions League is followed by an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Vallecano at home.
A potentially sackable offence in its own right when you're at a club like Barcelona, Warnock responds by reeling off four away wins on the bounce without conceding a single goal - including a heroic 1-0 win against league leaders Atletico.
Despite the run, it still leaves Barca in eighth position in the league, a precarious spot for any manager, let alone a Yorkshireman called Neil who only ever orders patatas bravas in the world famous tapas bars of the Catalonian capital.
That being said, Barcelona do manage to finish top of their Champions League group despite a 1-0 away defeat to United in their last game and negotiate the fourth and fifth rounds of the Spanish Cup with minimal fuss.
Unfortunately, that might not be enough to keep Warnock in a job by the time 2019 rolls round.
A 1-0 home defeat to Celta Vigo and a 2-0 loss to rivals Real Madrid - immediately followed by Warnock telling any press member who will listen that "Zidane lacks class", essentially a Rover 200 picking a fight with a Bugatti Veyron - quickly leaves his job hanging by a thread.
Fortunately for the Sheffield native, he has himself a fan in the form of one Diego Maradona, who comes out to bat for the belligerent gaffer by insisting that Barcelona won't make any rash decisions and Warnock retains the full support of the board (lol), players (LOL) and fans (weirdly enough he does, for some reason. They actually quite like him).
Regardless, before the next league game, a home fixture against Deportivo Alaves, it is widely reported that a defeat will see Warnock tied up, have his mouth duct-taped and thrown on the next reasonably-priced flight to Leeds-Bradford airport.
Unbelievably, the Barcelona players manage to rally around their hopeless gargoyle of a manager, sat atop Notre Dame as the world burns around him. They go 3-0 up in the first half and Warnock pragmatically applies the handbrake as Barcelona keep 68% of possession and nothing of note happens for the rest of the game.
His employment, however, continues to be listed as 'insecure' in the job search page and it feels as though the next big L Warnock takes will be his last in Spain. He seems to know this, too, and spends his time in between matches questioning the sustainability of Cardiff City's incredible form under his replacement, Juande Ramos.
A leopard can't change its spots but it can hide behind a tree for a little while
Barcelona crash out of the Spanish Cup in the quarter final stage, losing 2-1 across two legs to Bilbao, despite an incredible performance by Lionel Messi who lays on chance after chance for his teammates. As Luis Suarez is sent off because he is Luis Suarez, they all fall to his replacement Kevin Prince-Boateng. They are, therefore, not converted.
Meanwhile in the league, a brace from the apparently dwarf-obsessed Ivan Rakitic gives them a vital 2-1 win in the derby against Espanyol.
After that, it's Bilbao again, in a match uncouthly billed as 'El Sackico' by all the red-faced, white-socks-and-sandals British journalists that have managed to leave the tabloids and infiltrate the Spanish press.
No lessons are learned from the Cup defeat and Sergio Busquets is sent off inside 26 minutes. Barcelona somehow still manage to salvage a 2-2 draw. You know what they say: the Warnock philosophy taketh away, the Warnock philosophy giveth.
Whilst checking the in-game social media feed for the reaction of the fans after the match I am absolutely astounded to see the headline "Warnock accept bids for Pique". As it turns out, I simply misread, and he is in fact sending youth striker Peque out on loan rather than suddenly deciding to sell his team's best defender because he was raging after a game and had a bit too much wine in his office.
Who amongst us hasn't transfer listed a defender immediately following a 5.0 rating in an important match? Let them cast the first stone.
Liverpool versus Barcelona 2: Warnock Boogaloo
Messi comes to his manager's aid again as Barcelona beat Eibar 3-0 and rise to the lofty heights of sixth, with Warnock hoping to secure a place in the Europa League next season - a competition he has long dreamed about winning.
It's a shame, then, that despite his struggles in La Liga he remains in contention for the better European cup competition - the Champions League - a title I can imagine he has no interest in winning due to what he deems 'too many teams playing la de da football'.
Fittingly, Barcelona have drawn Liverpool. Unfittingly, they go down 1-0 in the first leg at Anfield in a completely unremarkable game that I can only describe as 'containing Adam Lallana'. In the grand scheme of things, thought, it's not a bad result. It's a lot better than 4-0.
They keep things ticking over in the league and beat Valencia 3-1, Betis 1-0 and Sevilla 2-1 to keep the wolf from the door. Which, in this context, would make Neil Warnock Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother. Sounds about right, doesn't it? I mean, you can quite easily picture it, is what I'm saying. Neil Warnock in an old-fashioned dressing gown and nightcap.
Meanwhile in Cardiff, clearly distraught that the manager that taught him to love again left him for Barcelona, Sol Bamba has signed for FC Dallas.
Ahead of the second leg Barcelona fans vote 76% no to the question "Should Neil Warnock be sacked?'. Perhaps touched by the supporters' relentless and illogical belief in him, he gives them a performance to remember.
He does what his real life counterpart Ernesto Valverde couldn't do and knocks Liverpool out of the Champions League.
Alisson, who has thwarted Barcelona for two seasons running as part of miracle comebacks, clearly cannot handle Neil Warnock glowering at him from the sideline for the entire match and eventually gifts Barcelona the decisive goal in the 88th minute.
But despite the incredible result, it is in the pre-match presser for their next game that Warnock really shines.
Neil Warnock: A play in two acts
Neil Warnock is on a high and that can only mean one thing. Mischief. And fuck me is he good at being mischievous.
I mean... just read this.
That's right. That's the Neil Warnock, the most Brexit manager in existence, a man so Brexit he pours gravy on his cereal instead of milk, a man so Brexit he has literally (as in, in real life, honestly Google it) said the words: "I can't wait to leave! To hell with the rest of the world", telling the Spanish manager of Real Valladolid he could do with some "foreign imports".
Who exactly do you reckon they need, Neil? Bobby Zamora and Paddy Kenny?
Even better, when Warnock is called out over his hypocrisy and asked whether he thinks his comments are a bit disrespectful he abruptly storms out of the press conference.
I'd say you couldn't write it, but this is Neil Warnock. It practically writes itself at this point. It's no surprise his AI version is this spot on.
Valladolid are beaten 2-0 anyway, a result Warnock presumably celebrates by painting St. George's cross on his chest and spending the whole evening taking taxis up and down Barcelona just to ask the drivers what time they're on 'til and then, without asking, detail his extensive views on immigration and cultural diversity.
In between stops he will, of course, refuel by way of plate after plate of patatas bravas.
"We have other things on our tapas menu, sir" the waiters will say, and he will just fold his arms and stare at them until they bring him his roast potatoes.
"Do you have any bisto? BISTO. It's a brand of instant gravy. You don't know it? Fucking useless the lot of you."
Since coming face to face with the sack before the Alaves game Warnock's Barcelona side have been a revelation. They rip off a run of 10 straight wins in the league and fly up the table into third, with two games in hand on Atletico and Real Madrid ahead of them.
Perhaps even more impressively, they earn a 2-2 draw away at Old Trafford in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United. And that's despite going 2-0 down inside 17 minutes to goals from Eric Bailly and Jesse Lingard, whose milly rock celebration was presumably interrupted by Warnock throwing a football boot at his head.
They breeze the second leg 2-0 thanks to a Suarez brace and all of a sudden look like they might actually win the damn thing.
Until you see that they have drawn Man City in the semi-finals - their third English opponent in a row.
Momentum continues with wins over Atletico and Celta Vigo to lift them to second in La Liga but they can only draw 1-1 at home to Real Madrid (after the match Warnock calls Zinedine Zidane "a waste of time"), meaning the league is all but wrapped up for Los Merengues.
It appears it is European glory or nothing, Neil.
Oh dear god, no, it's actually happening
Despite playing Lionel Messi as a centre midfielder and then subbing him off after an hour, Barcelona win 2-1 in the first leg against Warnock's physical and philosophical antithesis, Pep Guardiola.
In the reverse fixture at the Etihad, Barcelona have only two shots on target. Those shots come from defensive midfielder Arturo Vidal and right-back (playing as a left-back) Nelson Semedo. They score both. Neil Warnock is in the Champions League final, 4-2 on aggregate. Once again: Neil Warnock is in the Champions League final. Two shots. Two goals. What the fuck is happening?
Worst of all, he actually, probably, deserves to be there. PSG are all that stand between him and the biggest club competition in the world.
In the mean time, this is Neil Warnock's absurd run to end the season that sees them fall just two points shy of Madrid for the title.
It's a date with destiny and Neil Warnock is here wearing his best red dress
Ahead of the game, Warnock announces that he will retire come the end of the season, placing more emotional weight on this simulated Football Manager cup final than I could have possibly ever imagined.
Given their remarkable form since he criticised another manager for not buying more of them bloody foreigners (16 wins and 2 draws from 18 games), it was hard to see how Barcelona could lose this one. Even more so given they were playing the one team who have bottled important Champions League ties more than them in recent years.
In the end, it was comfortable, and a performance that typified what Warnock has managed to turn Barcelona into: a cold-hearted, ruthless team that know when to foul at the right moments and how to defend a lead once they grab one.
An early goal from Luis Suarez (who wins the Golden Boot award for the competition and dedicates it to Warnock) means not much else happened for the rest of the game until the cartoon aardvark Arthur popped up in the 88th to seal the win. Of the Barca playes, only Philippe Coutinho is given a poor match rating - proof if you needed it that Warnock has the likes of Messi, Busquets and Pique absolutely running through brick walls for him.
He quietly resigns on the 23rd of June and Barcelona begin the search to replace him, with the likes of Marcelo Bielsa, Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte all rumoured.
The legacy he leaves behind is unquestionable. Checking the La Liga stats at the end of the season it is telling that Barcelona finished top or joint top in all the following categories:
- Yellow cards
- Tackles won
- Clean sheets
- Fouls committed
The top one makes you wonder if he changed who he was to fit in at the club. The next four, however, are peak Warnock. Like Frank Sinatra, a man Neil Warnock has almost certainly never been compared to, he did it his way.
It even impacted Messi, who scores only 14 goals, his lowest return in the league since 2006/07 (when he was 19 years old and played only 26 of the 38 games).
Even so, he finishes with the highest average rating of any player (8.05) and wins La Liga player of the year and Champions League midfielder of the tournament. He cites his manager as a key factor in both. As I check Messi's page I am also shocked to find that Warnock has infiltrated the GOAT's favoured personnel list, joining the likes of Xavi, Dani Alves, Fabregas and, er, Pablo Aimar.
As I prepare to close this ridiculous save for the last time, and as those virtual, lobster-red, floral-short covered legs stroll off into the Barcelona sunset, suitcase in one hand, pint of Carling in the other, never to grace the English football league again, I can't help but feel like the virtual Neil Warnock has proved something here.
Sometimes you just need a shithouse. And sometimes, only a shithouse will do.
At least now we know. At least, now, Barcelona know.