A Tale Of Two Neil’s

For most of my life, following  Rotherham United has been an affliction to be endured rather than a blessing to be enjoyed. Success has come neither easily nor often, but the last few years have seen an upturn in fortunes.

In the 2013-14 season the club were promoted to the Championship (the second tier of the English game) and managed to retain their place last season, when a last gasp rally saw them escape relegation. The current season started in predictable fashion with the team hovering just above the relegation zone, but two unexpected wins lifted them clear. And then something even more unexpected happened, because the club parted company with their successful Scottish boss, Steve Evans, in circumstances that are still unclear.

Anyway, a new manager, Neil Redfearn , took over on 9th February. Just four months later, he was sacked,  after a pitiful winless run with the club now just one place off the bottom of the table and an odds on certainty for relegation. The board acted fast and on 11th February appointed the definition of human Marmite, Neil Warnock to take the helm for the rest of the season.

The early omens weren’t great. A hard-fought draw against  Birmingham was followed by a defeats at promotion favourites Burnley and  run-of-the-mill Reading. By now the team were 6 points from safety and facing a March and early April  programme that featured games against most of the top  teams vying for promotion.

And that’s when the ‘miracle’ started.

The team that was clearly the second worst in the league won six and drew two of their next eight matches, and pulled 9 points clear of the relegation zone in the process. They went from hopeless to unbeatable in a couple of weeks – from the second worst team to (at least on the recent form guides) the best.

So what the heck went on here, and why should you care, even if you have zero interest in football? Well for the beginning of the story, you have to go back to October when Redfearn was appointed.

Within a couple of weeks, he announced to the media that he’d inherited a mess. The players he’d been left with by the previous manager simply weren’t up to the job. He would need new players, and over the coming weeks he sidelined many of the existing squad, and brought in a number of his own players. The effect on the morale of the players already there isn’t hard to imagine. The effect on results is there for all to see –  things didn’t improve. In fact they got worse.

When Warnock was appointed in February, his only initial comment about the players was that they seemed a great bunch of lads but there were rather a lot of them – presumably because he now had players left behind from two different managers!  The results over the next 8 games were gained using the same players that Redfearn had condemned as “not good enough”. The Redfearn  acquisitions barely played at all..

So what was the difference between these two Neil’s?

Well Redfearn looked at the cards he’d been dealt and decided he didn’t like them. They didn’t fit in with the way he wanted to play and so he decided to swap them for some new ones. These cards were different, but as it turned out, no more effective. The grass was no greener on the other side of the fence..

Warnock took a look at his cards and  decided to play the hand he’d been dealt.

Redfearn had a fixed idea of how football should be played and decided that these players couldn’t play that way. He was probably right.

Warnock was more pragmatic. He looked at the players he’d got, and then figured out what they could do, and set about creating a style of play that would make the most of their assets.

In all sphere’s of life, there is more than one way to skin the metaphorical cat. Too many of us act like Redfearn, bemoaning the fact that we’ve not been dealt the right cards to do what we want in the way we’d like, rather than  following Warnocks approach – accepting the cards and figuring out how we can play them to win.

Most of us can relate to this, can’t we? If  I believed the  only writing worth bothering with involved creating serious novels, I’d starve. I haven’t been dealt the cards to create those to a ‘Championship’ standard. But it doesn’t matter. I figured out what I can do (copywriting and guff like this!) and that yields greater financial rewards than those received by 95% of serious writers.

As you manage the enterprise that’s your life, are you behaving like Redfearn or Warnock? Are you complaining about your cards, or are you working out how to maximise their potential?

The reality is that very few of us are dealt a perfect hand,  but all of us have the opportunity to figure out how best to  play the cards we have. That means focussing on what we can do, and not what we can’t.  It means working on our strengths and ignoring our weaknesses.  It means believing that we can, even when all the conventional evidence suggests that we probably can’t.

And when you do that – as Neil Warnock has proved – amazing things can happen.

Footnote:  I fully accept that the laws of the Universe dictate that the mere publication of this article will result in an unprecedented crash in form culminating in a plunge into the third tier by May. But it was fun while it lasted!

10 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Neil’s

  1. Adrian

    Brilliant article and so true, it’s amazing how many people and companies wait for the perfect hand (which never arrives!) instead of utilising to the full what cards you actually have to play. Thanks.

  2. Lawrence Nelson

    A great point, well put John.
    As a youngster, I used to watch a cartoon called “Around the world in eighty days,” which you may remember was the story of Phileas Fogg. They used some clever little ditties in that cartoon to impress upon the young impressionable minds that were their audience, the importance of the same philosophy that you have just so eloquently explained. One of these sticks in my mind today as a fifty something, even though I was only seven or eight years old when I first heard it and it goes; “If you use what you have got, you won’t need what you have not.”
    I’ve had the privilege to have worked with many young people over the years and made sure that those impressionable minds have been infused with the little ditties I picked up in my early days and with your permission, will borrow your article to use on the minds that need the same message from a different angle.
    Thanks for the great blog post and keep up the good work!

    1. John Harrison Post author

      Yes, I’d be delighted for you to use it. It’s interesting that cartoons aimed at kids made an attempt to educate, motivate and guide in those days. Does that happen now? I doubt it. The great thing about messages like that is that there’s a subliminal quality to them.

  3. Ian Glenn

    Good one John. Now living in Scotland, my days at Millmoor are 40 years behind me but I can still remember the millers beating Arsenal at home (probably before your time!) Good to know they are on the up again. I still look at the results every Sunday.

    1. admin

      Yes, things are going well – for now! Rotherham beat Arsenal twice, once in 1960 in an FA Cup second replay and once in 1978 in the League Cup (Thank you Google). For the first game I wasn’t born and I have no recollection of the second, so can only assume I missed it for some reason. The teamsheet shows that top sides treated the competition a lot more seriously than they do today. The Arsenal team included Pat Jennings, David O’Leary, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Graham Rix and Malcolm Macdonald.

  4. John Clayton

    I’m tempted to ask “Two Neil’s what?” Any article that begins with a misplaced apostrophe doesn’t exactly inspire me to read it, so I haven’t.

    1. John Harrison Post author

      That’s a shame and somewhat ironic, particularly if you’d read a personal admission towards the end of the piece. But you didn’t!

  5. David Connor

    Hi John,
    I was enjoying your article till I came to the end, when you wrote that “footnote” which I thought spoiled it, and I do realise you wrote the footnote with a large amount of “tongue in cheek” but none the less, you are right – (again – lol)
    We have to play the cards we are dealt with as best we can – its no use moaning and groaning, that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
    Thanks for taking the time to do all this article stuff – I do appreciate it.
    Kind Regards
    David Connor.

    1. John Harrison Post author

      It was tongue in cheek as you say. However, to carry the analagy a bit further, no matter how well you play a poor hand, you will always be beaten by someone playing a good hand equally well. Thankfully, in football and in life, not many people do that.

  6. John Harrison Post author

    Well three games on and it’s now a record equalling 11 games unbeaten. Heard a telling quote from Warnock on radio that went something like this. “It isn’t rocket science. I see all these modern coaches with their notepads and instructions to do A, then B then C then D. What they forget is that if you can’t do A very well, you never get to B, C and D.” I think the message is that when you’re working with limited resources, keep it very simple and concentrate on doing what you can do, well. It’s a philosophy which transcends football.


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