Notts Legend Warnock Far From Don

As Aberdeen prepare for their trip to Glasgow Rangers in the Tuesday (6 February) Scottish Premier League clash, spare a thought or seventy-five for The Dons’ new manager, until the end of the season that is, 75-year-old Neil Warnock.

That’s as much as we’re going to say on the Ibrox game, but for Warnock, the enigmatic, loveable football manager whose experience in the English game dates back to 1980 (management), and to the 1960s (playing) sees him taking on his twentieth job in ‘the hot seat,’ having been in charge for well over 1,600 of them.

Amongst those games, and with it an impressive eight promotion campaigns, is his spell, in the early days of his career, here in Nottingham, when he led Notts County to back-to-back promotions in 1990 and 1991.

Both coming via the play-offs, Warnock, with Sunderland-born Mick Jones (former Mansfield Town boss, 1979-81) as his assistant, as well as Paul Evans and Dave Wilson, who were with him when he led Scarborough Athletic to Football league in 1987, as champions of the old, Football Conference, the Yorkshireman came oh-so-close to taking County into the Premier League.

They not being able to do that, in the end, cost him his job at Meadow Lane, but he’s continued his promotion antics since those days also, leading Huddersfield Town and Plymouth Argyle into the next tier in the mid-nineties, then Sheffield United (2006), Queens Park Rangers (2011) and Cardiff City (2018) to the Promised Land, the middle of those, QPR, as Championship champions.

He also collected the League Manager’s Association (LMA) Special Achievement Award in 2018 – but what of that County reign?

1989-90 Season

Warnock took over from John Barnwell in January 1989, County would quickly embark on, give-or-take, four enjoyable years at the Lane, finishing ninth in 1988-89, some twenty-five points adrift of eventual, Third Division champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers (and six places above Notts rivals, Mansfield Town); the following season though, was a one to remember.

In the end, six points separated the top three of Bristol Rovers (93pts), Bristol City (91pts), and Warnock’s County (87pts), the latter of whom were joined by Tranmere Rovers, Bury, Bolton Wanderers.

County travelled to Bolton on 13 May 1990, with Bury hosting Tranmere, both games finishing in draws; at Burnden Park, Bolton, a 1-1 draw was played out as Tony Philliskirk’s goal for the hosts was matched by Gary Lund’s for County.

In the return fixtures, just three days later, and with Tranmere winning 2-0 against Bury (and 2-0 on aggregate), County also won by the same score, when home to Bolton, in front of an expectant 15,000 plus crowd, Gateshead-born striker, Tommy Johnson, and Kevin Bartlett, sending the Notts club to Wembley.

Eleven days after the second legs were played out and Notts County met John King’s Tranmere side at Wembley Stadium, in front of over 29,000 spectators; it was a day that belonged to County, who put in a dominant performance against their Merseyside opponents.

The opening goal arrived just after the half hour mark when Kevin Bartlett’s cross found Johnson lurking in the box, and his low effort beat Nixon, in the Rovers goal, for the only goal of the half; Rovers had chances of their own, Steve Cherry certainly called into action when tipping Jim Steel’s headed effort over the crossbar.

However, minutes after that missed chance for Rovers, County doubled their advantage when Phil Robinson’s free-kick was met by the head of Craig Short at the back post, and County led 2-0; Johnson did come close to adding a third when, having been fouled by Steve Mungall, stepped up to send the set-piece past the wall, but not Nixon, who, along with the assistance of his post, kept the ball out.

County though had done enough and finished their season (league and play-offs) with twenty-seven victories, thirteen draws, and just nine defeats, and Johnson as top scorer (18 goals)– the first of three consecutive seasons he achieved the feat at the club, they taking a well-earned promotion from Division Three to Division Two.

Notts County – Steve Cherry, Charlie Palmer, Nick Platnauer, Craig Short, Dean Yates, Phil Robinson, Dean Thomas, Phil Turner, Kevin Bartlett, Gary Lund, Tommy Johnson

1990-91 Season

Twelve months later and Warnock’s charges were at it again, this time earning promotion from the Second to the First Division, having finished fourth in the league, eight points splitting the top four of champions Oldham Athletic (88pts), runners-up West Ham United (87pts), third place Sheffield Wednesday (82pts) – all of whom took automatic promotion, and County in fourth (80pts).

This campaign County would be joined in the play-off lottery by that of Millwall, Brighton & Hove Albion, and Middlesbrough, with Brighton and Millwall facing each other (the Seagulls winning 6-2 on aggregate, the first game being played at the old Goldstone Ground, demolished in 1997, and the second at the Den, demolished in 1993).

For County meanwhile, their first leg was a trip to the north-east, and Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough (also now demolished, 1997), on 19 May 1991, the two playing out a 1-1 draw, Phil Turner’s first half goal for County being cancelled out by a late equaliser from James Phillips; back at Meadow Lane, three days later, and a sole effort from Paul Harding, twelve minutes from time, gave County a 2-1 aggregate win, and sent them back to Wembley for the second year running.

At Wembley this time facing Barry Lloyd’s dogged Brighton side, County were not to be denied their shot at the big-time, and certainly not Tommy Johnson, he netted twice, either side of the break, to give Warnock’s men a commanding advantage.

The first was said to have come from a controversial corner, whilst Albion saw an effort from Gary Chivers come back off the post just before the break; just before the hour mark and County doubled the lead, and Johnson his tally for the day, beating the Seagulls’ shot-stopper, Perry Digweed, on a narrow angle (Albion again hit the woodwork early in the second, this via a Dean Wilkins free-kick).

A fortuitous third was added with less than twenty remaining when a free-kick from Mark Draper was headed clear by Colin Pates, but it ricocheted off Dave Regis and into Digweed’s goal; Wilkins did grab a late consolation for Albion following a mazy run, but it was too little, too late for them.

Of note, amongst the Albion players at Wembley that day was the Romanian-born right-back, Stefan Iovan; he only played a handful of games for the South Coast club that season, his only spell outside of his motherland where he had a glittering career, on the main, with that of Steaua Bucharest – 1986 UEFA Super Cup, 1986 European Cup, six Romanian League championships, and three Romanian Cup successes (and a Sussex Senior Cup with Brighton in 1992).

For Johnson however, his nineteen goals this time would see him finish as top scorer of a season which would also see County reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, losing 2-1 to a Paul Gascoigne-inspired, Tottenham Hotspur (they beat Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest by the same score, AET, in the Wembley final) – County being promoted from Two, to One, shortly before the formation of the Premier League.

Notts County – Steve Cherry, Charlie Palmer, Alan Paris, Craig Short, Dean Yates, Don O’Riordan, Dean Thomas, Phil Turner, Mark Draper, Dave Regis, Tommy Johnson

They Could Dream?

The early nineties would see the creation of both the Premier League, and along with it, Sky Sports, and for Neil Warnock and his Notts County side, like the rest of the country, the dream was big – it had to be really.

That 1991-92 season though, it wasn’t good for Warnock et al and, following from the success of the previous two campaigns, playing in the top tier was just one step too far, and it eventually cost the manager his job.

Sandwiched between Luton Town and West Ham United, Notts County found themselves relegated back whence they came, Johnson’s dozen goals far from sufficient when losing twenty-two of their forty-two outings – it was a season which saw Ian Wright finish as top scorer with 29 goals for Crystal Palace and Arsenal, and Tottenham’s Gary Lineker second with 28 goals, and Nottingham Forest, they finished eighth.

Having been relegated, Warnock only lasted half of the 1992-93 season, the first of the Premier League era, they eventually finishing in seventeenth place of the newly-formed, Division One, three points off what would have been a second successive relegation, and a massive forty-four points off eventual champions, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United.

Relegation from the Football league itself happened back in 2019, County spending four seasons in the top tier of the non-league system, returning ahead of the current campaign.

Warnock meanwhile, he continues to enjoy himself, no matter where goes – just ask fans of Plymouth and Oldham, Sheffield United and QPR, Leeds United, Cardiff City, Middlesbrough, and now even Aberdeen, to name a few.

No matter what happens north o’ the border, football fans at Pittodrie are sure in for treat.

*Article provided by Peter Mann (Senior Correspondent).

*Main image @Official_NCFC Neil Warnock juggling in his Notts days.

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