Death, taxes and Neil Warnock’s presence at Elland Road causing Leeds United to fall apart, again. Nothing in life is certain except these three things. And you can only try to evade one of them.
When Neil Warnock strolls through the tunnel at Elland Road and ambles down the touchline to the dugout – a cocksure smugness and wry smirk belying his eyebrowless expression – the result is inevitable: Leeds United are going to lose.
The most recent example came on February 3, 2018, when Warnock took his Cardiff City team to West Yorkshire and the hosts duly followed the script. Leeds didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as swallow a grenade, leaving the home fans feeling haunted by a cold sense of déjà vu.
As if a 4-1 defeat wasn’t bad enough for Leeds supporters, Warnock returned to South Wales with the scalp of Thomas Christiansen, taken with the bloody brutality of Brad Pitt’s character in Inglourious Basterds.
Such is the power with which the curse of Warnock has a grip on Elland Road, it even continued while he was manager of the club.
More often than not, Neil would amble down the touchline to the home dugout, and the Whites would lose: 7-3 to Nottingham Forest, 6-1 to Watford, 5-1 to Chelsea.
The backdrop to such defeats was particularly bleak. Leeds supporters had become completely disaffected by Ken Bates’ ownership, and the grim Warnockball on the pitch was hardly helping to lift moods, especially as it came so soon after Simon Grayson had seen a young, vibrant side dismantled.
Warnock could maybe expect some sympathy having seen captain and star player Robert Snodgrass sold to Norwich City in his first summer as manager, but he hardly helped endear himself to Leeds fans.
Luciano Becchio, despite scoring 19 goals in the first half of the season, was swapped for Steve Morison, with Warnock promising the striker would go on to become a “legend” at the club. Morison went on to score five goals in two and a half years at Leeds and recently taunted the fans upon his return to Elland Road with Millwall, such is the mutual contempt between both parties.
Ross Barkley, one of the most promising midfielders in the country, was signed on loan and impressed in a struggling side, only to be rewarded by being dropped in favour of the likes of Michael Brown before being promptly sent back to Everton.
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Another player to inexplicably fall out of favour with Warnock was Ross McCormack, who had finished the previous season as Leeds’ top scorer with 19 goals in all competitions.
In a squad devoid of flair, the Scotland international was often a bystander, looking on forlornly for opportunities to show his class while the grunt of Brown and co. took preference.
Fittingly, it was McCormack who turned Warnock’s hex against him, delivering the final blow to his tenure as manager.
While Warnock’s appointment was meant to represent a final push for promotion, Derby County arrived in LS11 on April Fools’ Day, 2013, with Leeds eight points off a play-off spot and seven points above the relegation zone.
Following a typically dreary opening hour in which Morison, Luke Varney and El Hadji Diouf toiled in attack, McCormack was summoned from the bench to deliver the game’s only moment of quality.
After Derby only partially cleared a corner, the ball rolled to the feet of the Scot, who delivered a sumptuous finish; the kind of goal you want to kiss. The Mitre dreamily arced into the top corner of the goal, looking relieved to be finally caressed with the love and attention it deserves, as opposed to being thoughtlessly shunted into the skies with fear and loathing.
But McCormack wasn’t finished there. He would later admit that the season had been “a complete waste”, but he used his celebration to bellow two words which would sum up the campaign even more succinctly.
As the ball bounced back out of the net in excitement, McCormack ran towards the supporters, only to briefly turn towards the home dugout. “F*CK OFF,” he roared, accompanied by an uppercut to the air which in his dreams had landed flush on his manager’s jaw.
Those two words may not have completely rid Elland Road of the curse of Warnock, but they temporarily turned its power against the tormentor.
With 20 minutes remaining, Leeds crumpled like a cardboard box left in a downpour. Paul Coutts equalised after Connor Sammon’s penalty came back off the post, and Derby left with all three points when Jake Buxton bundled home a scrappy winner with two minutes left to play.
Before the night was out, the spectre of Warnock had left Elland Road. Leeds announced his departure as manager, and he lamented a lack of quality “in the final third of the pitch” – the irony of having just seen a player he had willfully ignored light up Elland Road with a beautiful goal obviously lost on Neil.
Warnock’s curse will, of course, never be truly lifted until he finally retires, but enough was enough on that day five years ago, and Ross McCormack took matters into his own hands. For that, Leeds fans should forever be grateful.
By Rob Conlon