(Reuters) - Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock could make English football history this weekend by notching a record eighth promotion as the Bluebirds seek to return to the Premier League after four years.
If Fulham lose to Sunderland on Friday, Cardiff would go up by beating Hull City in their penultimate game on Saturday. More likely, the race will go to the final day on May 6 but, with Cardiff having a one-point advantage over their London rivals, they remain clear favourites.
For the 69-year-old Warnock, who is one year older than Arsene Wenger, promotion would represent the crowning glory on a career that began more than half-a-century ago as a winger with Chesterfield.
After a non-distinguished playing career, Warnock has made his mark as a manager, going up seven times in a career spent with 15 different clubs over 38 years, a promotion record he shares with Dave Bassett, Graham Taylor and Jim Smith.
Much of that time has been spent in England’s lower leagues although he has also taken two teams, Sheffield United and Queens Park Rangers, into the Premier League where he also managed with Crystal Palace.
For all his travelling, Warnock has always embraced his image as the homely Yorkshireman and caretaker of the English game’s traditional values, a role which sometimes put him into conflict with other, often foreign, managers.
Earlier this season, he accused Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola of “blowing hot air out of (his) mouth” for complaining about Cardiff’s roughhouse tactics during their FA Cup fourth-round clash in January.
He also recently clashed with Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo, whom he said showed a “lack of class” for over-celebrating their 1-0 win, a game in which Cardiff missed two late penalties.
Yet Warnock’s feisty approach belies an impressive ability to communicate with players, who are sometimes more than 50 years his junior.
“We haven’t got what I would call ‘stars’,” he told the Daily Mail in an interview earlier this season. “They’re just a genuine bunch. It (promotion) would be the biggest achievement I’ve had by a mile when you look at where we were 16 months ago and what we’ve spent.”
Much of Warnock’s secret involves taking players like centre half Sol Bamba, who are struggling elsewhere and injecting them with an impressive sense of belief.
The 33-year-old Ivorian, who was released on a free transfer by Leeds in 2016, has responded by becoming one of Cardiff’s stars of the season.
Warnock even said he prefers Bamba to Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, the world’s most expensive defender.
“It wasn’t me being clever. I just felt that they don’t offer any more. Yes, (Van Dijk) is better on the ball but I’d rather have a Bamba than a Van Dijk. I tried to sign Van Dijk for Palace and the chief scout said he’s not quick enough.”
It is that sort of ready wit, combined with his constant success, that has made Warnock such a favourite with the English media and the bane of many opposing supporters with whom he often has a turbulent relationship on the touchline.
Two years ago Warnock thought his managerial career was over before Rotherham called him at his farm in Cornwall and asked him to mastermind their relegation scrap. Inevitably he succeeded, which led to a call from Cardiff.
“Rotherham was the turning point in my football career. It was fantastic. I started to think: ‘By gum, I enjoy this.’
“No disrespect to Cardiff but they probably needed me more than I needed them, when I was appointed. The sack doesn’t worry me. When you’re younger, you have three or four bad results and you worry about everything.”
Should Cardiff go up, Warnock will be presented with a whole new set of problems because he is on record as saying he does not enjoy the fancy-dan atmosphere of the Premier League.
“(The Championship) is my cup of tea — lads that go through brick walls for you,” he said earlier this season.
In other words he would like to win promotion — and then stay exactly where he is.
Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Toby Davis