Could the familiar face of Neil Warnock kill off Sunderland’s reignited play-off hopes?

We pay tribute to a giant of the game, and a stalwart of the EFL - it's Neil Warnock

This club does not do mundane finishes to a season (sorry Matt), and it’s desire to be relevant continues for another season as we refuse to just go home for tea and medals safe in the knowledge that the survival objectives have more than impressively been already met.

Of course you’d be forgiven for writing the season off some weeks back for any number of reasons beyond form and being striker-less, with short and long term injuries rife amongst the squad, referees continuing to rewrite the rules of the game, and Dennis Cirkin concussed enough to think we were still in the EU.

But with youth comes a certain naivety and an unflappable desire to succeed, not being scarred by previous failings and still eager to please, like a rescue puppy.. or Luke O’Nien. Couple that with the freedom bestowed on them as board expectations had already been met, with entertainment and a remit to go and win games being the order of the day from our Tony Mowbray.

Most reasonably minded fans were at peace with a top half finish (despite the January frustrations), Kristjaan Speakman has said as much, and Tony Mowbray had all but written off play-off hopes – until he was swiftly reminded to quickly change the narrative as not to deter fans from turning up.

Even little old me had been stood down by the EFL for a Sky/YouTube filming in London for the promotion-chasing clubs prior to the Luton Town game, suggesting 11 points adrift was too far off to be considered realistic contenders. But look at us now..

We must not forget that a massive contribution to this hope is the form of some of our promotion rivals, who for Blackburn in particular has deserted them completely, in fact gone off the edge of the proverbial cliff.

But one side who has not dropped in form, in fact has gone completely the other way, is Tuesday night’s opponents Huddersfield Town… and who manages them, a certain Neil Warnock.

Since the veteran “retired” manager returned to football in February this year at the ripe old age of 73 after ten months out, his sole remit was to keep struggling Huddersfield in the division.

He made an immediate impact with a 2-1 win over Birmingham City, before a couple of heavy defeats set them back, however a draw against Norwich and impressive wins against Watford and Middlesbrough started to make Championship clubs take note. The latter was not just a win against then third in the table Boro, it was a second half four-goal demolition that would’ve sabotaged accumulators up and down the country.

So how has the wily manager succeeded where Mark Fotheringham failed so badly, he hasn’t even had a chance to bring any new players in post-window. Well, Warnock is a manager, not a coach, a man manager at that. He knows how to build players up, motivate them, fire up rivalries that never existed, and is a canny operator of the dark arts of the game. All that being said he is a legend of the domestic game, who some love to hate, but we love him, and it’s fair to see he loves us.

Warnock claimed he was offered the Sunderland job back in 1992, and although philosophical about it, still rues the missed opportunity. “It was my biggest regret in my whole career” Warnock claimed. “I turned Chelsea down, but that wasn’t a regret.

“Sunderland was a regret. I didn’t want to do the dirty on a player who I used to play with in Malcolm Crosby, who was caretaker manager. So I said to the chairman Bob Murray that I would come when they get knocked out of the Cup. And they got to the final. It must have been fate…”.

Who knows how that one would’ve played out, and whether that John Byrne goal scoring run would’ve still got us all the way to Wembley, and possibly match the underdog feat of 1973.

So what makes the Sheffield man so popular in the game we love so much? Well with his playing career commencing in 1967 (not a typo) and his managerial chapter beginning in 1980, it smacks that there isn’t really anyone around with as much experience as him. In fact Warnock has managed more English professional football matches than any one else, a feat he surpassed in 2021 while managing Middlesbrough.

Ultimately it’s the personality of the free-speaking Yorkshireman that wins over the hearts and minds of so many. From the time he hustled his Sheffield United team at ten-pin bowling, only to rock up with his own bowling ball and gloves and proceed to roll a near perfect score.

Or the time he called El-Hadji Diouf a “Sewer Rat” and then went on to sign him at Leeds! There was also the time he called Phil Thompson “Pinocchio” and suggested he get “back in your f*cking cupboard”. He’s never short of a sound bite or two as Warnock as always stayed right on the edge, when talking about Stan Ternent he claimed he “wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire”.

Then there was the time after having three players sent off and two injured, the referee stopped a game at Bramall Lane, with Warnock claiming afterwards “you would think I was guilty of committing more crimes than Osama Bin Laden”. And of course following the Warnock documentary in 2004, after a fiery encounter with Millwall led by Lions captain and chief wind-up merchant Kevin Muscat, went onto tell every single opposition player at full time “that was for Muscat”.

Hilariously an oiled-up Warnock, during his brief retirement, did some co-comms for Sky Sports and couldn’t resist reminding us of his love for the club. He also went onto say that when he was at Boro he went up to take a look at Charlie Wyke, and came away wanting to sign Ross Stewart, who he claims is the best striker in the league. Poor Charlie.

So with all the stories and sound bites to one side, what is it that is getting us all nervous about the visit of Neil’s Terriers. Well it’s high stakes now for the Lads, and there is expectation back which may stifle the freedom, though it shouldn’t. The onus will be on us to dominate the ball, which traditionally Warnock has no problem with, as he will look to absorb the pressure and hurt us on the break. He doesn’t pin survival hopes on tonight, so may come here looking for a point, so be ready for what could be a frustrating evening.

All that being said, ironically Warnock does not have a great record against us, only winning four of his 16 encounters to date. The prize for a win tonight is a place in the play-offs, well for 24 hours anyway, so lets be hoping that our friend Neil has a disappointing evening on Wearside.