We’ve all seen this film before, right?
The one where the old cop has to crack one final case, the most difficult and dangerous one he’s ever faced, before he retires.
Maybe it’s the aged crook getting the gang back together for one last bank heist or the grizzled gunslinger defending his town from federal agents before riding off into the sunset on his trusty steed.
It might feature Al Pacino, Robert Di Niro, Morgan Freeman or Michael Caine squeezing the last drops of magnificence from their storied careers and now the baton passes to Neil Warnock.
At 72-years-old, on a contract that is scheduled to run out at the end of the season and with Middlesbrough F.C. seemingly already making plans for the future with the appointment of Kieran Scott as Head of Football, this feels like Neil Warnock’s final shot at adding another promotion to his resume.
Warnock has already hinted that this could be his last season, on Teesside at least, saying “they’ve brought a new sporting director in who is starting shortly so I would imagine things will change in the next 12 months” following Scott’s appointment.
With the game changing and many clubs looking at “director” models combined with his age, it’s hard to see how much longer he can resist the calls of retirement on the Devonshire coast.
Unless we’re told differently, this has to be treated like Neil Warnock’s final season in the game and one last promotion heist is the only fitting way to end the lengthy and decorated script that Warnock has woven during his over forty year managerial career.
No matter which way he tries to spin it in the press, Warnock is aiming to go out on a high note and nothing less than a promotion challenge is going to be acceptable to him, whether that comes by making the play-offs or upsetting the applecart and stealing a way into the automatic places.
The latter day films of Pacino, De Niro and the rest all go the same way and Warnock has already ticked some of the clichés off by bringing a crack team together for one last robbery or shootout, usually bringing together members of the old gang and employing some young bucks to fill the gaps left by friends dearly departed.
The gaffer has certainly done that this summer, with the backing of Steve Gibson and the assistance of the recruitment team, bringing 12 players into the squad. He’s got his trusted generals (Sol Bamba and Lee Peltier) to keep the young stars in line (Payero, Šporar, Siliki, Hernandez) and he’s got his muscle in Uche Ikpeazu and Matt Crooks.
Joe Lumley, Luke Daniels, Sammy Ameobi and Toyosi Olusanya fill out the ranks and they join the likes of Dael Fry, Anfernee Dijksteel, Jonny Howson and Marcus Tavernier to create a squad that on paper could be one of the best in the Championship.
In the films, while our anti-hero protagonist goes about building his gang, each member will do “something” that proves they can hang with the rest of the all-star cast. That might be an all-action sequence of them shooting up a full saloon of cowboys or swooping in from the skylights to nab an expensive diamond.
For Uche Ikpeazu and Matt Crooks that has meant scoring goals, being part of a more functional and watchable attack for Boro than what we observed last season and putting maximum effort in to endear themselves to the Red Army.
For others, like Payero, Siliki and Šporar, those opportunities are still to come as they get acclimated to our way of life on Teesside and the demands of the Championship.
While six points from the opening five games is less than what Boro fans would have expected, especially having only taken a point against Derby, Warnock will have been pleased with some of the progress the team has made.
His side have produced some brilliant, exciting football at home so far this season in the first half against QPR and in the second half against Blackburn. Those games followed a solid win over Bristol City while Boro are the only team not to lose to Fulham in the opening leg of the Championship race by showing the grit and determination that Warnock sides are famed for.
The manager can now look forward to adding a number of quality options to his team to complement the boys in red who’re already shining for him. Again, on paper, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to put together a “best eleven” with previously nailed on starters like Paddy McNair or last season’s top scorer Duncan Watmore facing stiff competition due to the influx of new faces at Rockliffe Park.
It will be a welcome headache for Warnock who saw his efforts to crack the play-offs last time out scuppered by injuries to key men Dael Fry, Marcus Tavernier and Anfernee Dijksteel.
The manager had previously complained about the limited attacking choice available to him from the bench after the Blackburn game, where Toyosi Olusanya and Josh Coburn were the only forwards to call upon.
Having Onel Hernandez and Andraž Šporar to compete with Uche, Tav, Crooks, Jones, Watmore, Coburn and Olusanya gives the manager a number of forward thinking options to choose from.
That investment into the squad and the bounty of options available to the manager does bring its own challenges. Managing the expectations of the fans, who will be eager to see the new boys play regularly and as soon as possible, will be tough. If form wavers and Payero or Šporar are left on the bench, rightly or wrongly, fans will use that as a stick to beat Warnock with.
The investment into the squad also means Neil Warnock has suddenly lost the ability to wheel out certain excuses. Again, it is more hopeful than factual at the moment, but the squad looks very strong. Where Boro finish in the league this season should not come down to left-back cover or Josh Coburn having to come off the bench every game.
Boro might have brought in a number of free agents but they weren’t working on a shoestring budget like other clubs did during the transfer window.
The entire package to bring Payero to Teesside was reported as £5.8 million including wages and they could be spending north of €10 million if they permanently sign Šporar and Siliki at the end of the season.
That’s without factoring in the contracts and fees for the other 9 players that signed this summer.
Neil Warnock has got the team that he wants, with players that should fit into his tactics and desired style of play. He’s assembled his troops and now he has to turn Steve Gibson’s backing into results.
They cannot afford to have many more repeats of QPR or Blackburn by leaving points out on the pitch, while fans will expect the likes of Derby to be dispatched in ruthless fashion with the signings that have been made.
Those films about an ageing hero trying to go out with one last hurrah usually end one of two ways. Either our main man gets that final taste of success by rolling back the years and leaves arm in arm with his companions as the screen fades to black or he goes out in a blaze of glory, sputtering blood and dirt as he finally meets his maker.
As the credits roll on his time on Teesside, Neil Warnock will be hoping that they do so as he rides off into the sunset, one last promotion under his arm.
Photo Credits: Northern Echo, Teesside Live, Middlesbrough Football Club, Tom Banks/banks-photo.co.uk