On Monday came the surprise announcement of the sudden departure of popular Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock. With hindsight, it is easy to see that the writing may have been on the wall for this departure. However, at the time, the announcement caught many off-guard as conventional wisdom suggested that Warnock would see out his final season at a club where he was widely adored by the fan base unless there was a real threat of relegation.
They say a week is a long time in football and between Sunday’s defeat to Bristol City and Saturday’s trip to Charlton Athletic much will have changed at Cardiff. The board has publicly stated that they expect a new manager in place in time for Saturday’s match. This means there will not be much time for fans to mourn the departure of a man who in three years has turned himself into a club legend. In this article we will look at the impact Warnock had during his three-year tenure, the reasons behind his departure and discuss the candidates to be the man sat in the away dugout at The Valley on Saturday.
When Warnock took the reins at Cardiff in October 2016 he took over a side widely expected to be among the division’s bottom sides that season. After guiding them to a respectable 12th place finish that season, his first full season in charge saw him guide the Bluebirds to a surprise promotion to the Premier League and in the process ensure that he has a permanent spot in the heart of many Cardiff fans.
Although their stay in the Premier League was short-lived, the fan base never turned on the man who had taken them from relegation candidates to the Promised Land in less than two years. Warnock’s support was still largely intact right up until the second of two 1-0 defeats in the space of three matches to local rivals Swansea City and Bristol City. That defeat at home to Bristol City left his then side 14th in the Championship table, well short of pre-season expectations of a push for an immediate return to the Premier League.
So why was it that the club announced his departure by ‘mutual consent’ on Monday?
First, let’s get one thing straight. Despite the fact, the term ‘mutual consent’ has become football talk for ‘sacked’, on this occasion, it was primarily Warnock’s decision to step away. Warnock stated as much in an interview with Wales Online:
“We both had a chat [Warnock and Chairman Mehmet Dalman after the Bristol City game], we’ve been so close together, and I felt it was the right time and he agreed,” Warnock said of his conversation with Dalman.
“He agreed reluctantly because he didn’t want me to go until Christmas, but I didn’t want it all to be soured.
“I’ve got such a good relationship with the fans and I just think it’s the right time now, while everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet.”
In the interview, Warnock suggests that he did not want to risk tarnishing his relationship with the fans should the season turn sour. This hints at the fact that he recognised that a genuine promotion challenge was beyond – even the eight-time promotion master himself. He will also have noticed that the tide was slowly starting to turn amongst a previously loyal fan base, with the boos that rang loudly around the Cardiff City Stadium at full-time on Saturday potentially signaling that Cardiff’s fan base were no longer willing to accept the largely dour football which had been on display for much of this season.
In reality, one should not be surprised by this assessment of the current situation. In truth, the Cardiff side which finished as runners-up in the 2017/18 Championship season were not your typical automatic promotion candidates.
That side ranked just 11th for goals from open play but tied first for goals from set-pieces. Cardiff were also the side who attempted the fewest passes per game (280) and played the highest percentage of long balls (26%). This is not to say they were not hugely effective at what they did as Cardiff spent more game time in the offensive third of the pitch (34%) than any other side in the division, were tied third for shots per game (14) and ranked top for both shots inside the box and six-yard box.* It was a promotion built on pressure football, maximising opportunities to get the ball into the box and outstanding defensive solidity (they conceded the joint fewest goals in the league), while all the time being roared on by a wall of noise from the vociferous home support.
Sadly, when your game plan is based around launching balls into the area from crosses and corners, as opposed to breaking sides down through creativity and movement, there will come a time when the ball stops bouncing your way in the box and the close games (44% of their wins that season was by one goal) start going against you.
Cardiff’s style this season has been similar, if slightly more extreme, to their promotion campaign, and they should arguably have a stronger squad following a year of Premier League investment. However, those close matches have started going against them. Cardiff have lost three games by just a single goal this season while their record of six draws is already two-thirds of the way to equalling their total for the whole of the 2017/18 season, suggesting that their ability to edge close matches might be coming to an end. Sadly for Warnock when results start to dry up, then the negative, long ball football which was accepted during the good times quickly turns into a stick with which to beat the manager.
Their issues this season have been compounded by a lack of a reliable target man upfront to win flick-ons, hold up play and finish the chances when the ball drops their way in the box. Warnock had hoped that 6ft 4in German striker Robert Glatzel would be that man, however, he has largely disappointed in this role since his £5.4m move from Germany’s second tier. This is reflected in his stats this season, Glatzel has won just 52 of his 130 aerial duels this season suggesting he is not proving a regular outlet for Cardiff’s direct passes, he averages just 10.8 successful passes per 90 minutes demonstrating that he is not regularly bringing teammates into play while he has scored just two goals from 28 shots this season.
Without a reliable target man to both link play and score goals, Warnock’s style of play lacks effectiveness. Perhaps a glance at the style and level of performances being achieved by the likes of Leeds, West Brom and Preston at the top of the division, and even members of the chasing pack such as Brentford, QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, was enough to convince him that he simply did not have the tools at his disposal to compete at the top through his usual methods.
There are other factors that must be considered which surely influenced Warnock’s decision to walk. Warnock has spoken openly about how difficult he found it to come to terms with the tragic death of Emiliano Sala, the guilt and responsibility he felt for the crash and how he contemplated walking away in the immediate aftermath.
Perhaps that tragedy changed Warnock’s outlook on football and life in general, it would surely be impossible for it not to. Warnock spoke of a sense of obligation to Cardiff and seeing the job through, but perhaps in the aftermath of Sala’s death his heart and mind was not on the job quite as much as it was before, and how could it be?
Even if Warnock’s undoubted passion to football, and commitment to the club, had waned even slightly, then losing to your two fiercest rivals in the space of two weeks, especially rivalries as fierce as Cardiff’s with both Bristol City and Swansea, is hard to bounce back from. As is the realisation that you may not be in a position to achieve the fairy tale ending he would have hoped for at the start of the season. It is very possible that these events dented Warnock’s motivation and desire to continue, and in part prompted his shock decision.
This brings us smoothly onto the topic of whether Warnock was right to carry on following relegation. It is understandable that Warnock wanted to try to get Cardiff back to the Premier, however perhaps with hindsight, it would have been the right time to walk away. He had achieved what would have been unthinkable to many when he took over in getting them into the top flight, and Cardiff were largely written off before their Premier League campaign started so to finish within two points of survival was nothing to be ashamed of.
With hindsight perhaps then was the time to step away, and allow a new manager to begin the reconstructing of the squad capable of pushing for promotion and challenging for Premier League survival. Even if Warnock had returned Cardiff to the top flight, someone would have had to inherit his squad and attempt to keep them there. Surely, if the ambition was promotion and then survival, it would have made sense to have the same man in charge of both objectives.
We can also question his decision to publicly announce his plans to step aside at the end of the season regardless of how it panned out. Recent high profile examples involving Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, have proven that sides rarely excel when the players know the manager currently in charge will not be there at the start of next season.
Such announcements bring with them uncertainty and distraction. Players, especially those signed during Warnock’s reign, may start to question if they will be in the next manager’s plans and whether it is time to start putting feelers out to other potential destinations. Moreover, such information can lead to a slight loss of authority for the man in charge and a potential dropping of standards from players who know that the current boss will not be the one deciding their futures come the end of the season.
It is impossible to say to what extent the announcement affected the Cardiff players, either consciously or sub-consciously, this season. But when football matches are frequently decided by the finest of margins, even the slightest lowering of standards can have a significant impact on results.
Then we must consider the behind the scenes issues with two key players in the Cardiff establishment. Warnock’s criticism of and deteriorating relationship with agent Willie McKay following his involvement in the deal designed to bring Sala to Cardiff has not gone down well with many behind the scenes.
But of greater significance has been the slow thawing of Warnock’s relationship with owner Vincent Tan. Tan has a vision of Cardiff being the base where the best young Welsh talent is developed. In this light, Bellamy’s recent public comments regarding the state of Cardiff’s youth setup will have done little to endear Warnock to Tan. With Warnock at the helm, sides must recognise that you sacrifice long-term planning and development for short-term success on the pitch. With results no longer as impressive as they were during Warnock’s first two seasons in charge that trade-off was becoming something, Tan was no longer willing to make.
Thus, the job for the incoming manager, whoever that may be, is a big one. They will have two primary objectives. The first is to go about overseeing an immediate upturn in fortunes on the pitch. The powerbrokers at Cardiff will expect this to be achieved through a periodic evolution of the playing style towards something more akin to the progressive and expansive approach of the sides currently occupying the upper echelons of the Championship table. This Cardiff side has lacked dynamism in midfield, creativity in the final third and have been wholly over-dependent on set pieces for chance creation. These are things the next boss will be expected to quickly address.
Next on the agenda will be the structural upheaval of a youth setup which has been largely outshone by that of their fiercest rivals Swansea in recent years. Warnock came in at a time when relegation appeared a real threat and his focus on the short-term was accepted as the side flourished on the pitch. Cardiff should not be serious relegation candidates this season. And therefore the incoming manager will be expected to balance short-term success with Tan’s long-term vision for the club.
So who might that new man be? It has been reported that it is now a straight shootout between former Millwall boss Neil Harris and current Charlton manager Lee Bowyer. Harris’ Millwall side were direct, although not as extreme as this Cardiff side, but also at the best capable of passages of exhilarating attacking football. Thus Harris may be seen as a natural successor to Warnock although whether he can impart a style of play that will get them consistently challenging at the top of the Championship remains up for debate. On the other hand, Bowyer has Charlton punching well above their weight, given the issues going on behind the scenes at the club and would surely relish the opportunity to lead the Cardiff evolution. He has worked miracles in his short time at Charlton and there is no reason to suggest that he couldn’t do the same at Cardiff.
Football is a fast-moving industry, however. What is presented as fact today can quickly become yesterday’s rumour, so don’t be surprised to see either Chris Hughton or Newport manager Mike Flynn in the Cardiff dugout in the near future. The one thing that does look likely though is that we shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out who the new man will be.