IT is a managerial career that has lasted more than four decades and encompassed almost 1,500 matches in the Football League. It has featured 18 different clubs and eight promotions, not to mention countless disagreements with referees. But it might well not have happened had it not been for a chance knock on the door of a shared rented house in Seaton Carew.

Rewind back to the early 1970s, and Neil Warnock was a player with Hartlepool United. Still in his mid-20s, the then winger had not really thought about what he might do when his playing days were over. He had certainly not considered dipping his toes into the world of coaching, but one night, he opened the door of his club accommodation to find a group of raggedly-dressed youngsters standing on his step. He didn’t know it at the time, but his life was about to change.

“I was staying in digs at Seaton Carew, and we had a little green square in front of the house,” explained Warnock, now manager of Middlesbrough and firmly established as a managerial institution. “The kids had nothing, nothing at all, they looked like urchins really. But they knocked on my door and asked, ‘Would you like to train us?’ I thought, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything at night, I’ll give it a go’. I went on the green and took them, and it was brilliant when they responded to what I was doing.

“It was either the Under-12s or the Under-13s, and it was like that film Kes. I felt like him with a whistle round my neck – ‘today lads, I am Bobby Charlton’. Eventually, we joined a league, and it was lovely to see a group of lads that had had no coaching at all, all of a sudden being organised as a team.

“I remember in one game, when we scored from a set-piece, I ran up and down that line like you’ve never seen. It was brilliant, and that was what really attracted me to the coaching side of things. Then, when I went back home, I took the Sunday League team at Todwick, where I lived (near Sheffield), and the rest went from there. I ended up playing at Gainsborough Trinity and got my first managerial job, and I’ve really enjoyed it all from that point on.”

That Gainsborough job came back in 1980, and over the last 40 years, Warnock has been one of the few constants as English football has changed out of all recognition in so many areas. Yet, at its heart, the job that Warnock is currently doing at Middlesbrough has not really changed.

Management remains the art of constructing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It has many strands, some of which have become more important over time and others which have gradually slid out of fashion, but its core tenets remain as relevant today as they were when Warnock first journeyed to the North-East to play for Hartlepool, and encountered the managerial figure who would have a greater impact on him than anyone else he has worked for or with since.

“My best manager was Len Ashurst when I was at Hartlepool,” said Warnock. “That was a difficult place to be, but I learned more from Len Ashurst than I learned from any other manager.

The Northern Echo:

“I used to play for some managers where I used to dread getting out of bed. I used to think, ‘Oh my God, what have we got today?’ But that certainly wasn’t the case with Len.

“He had the fewest things to work with did Len, but I learned more about man management from him than from anybody else. And Hartlepool was a great two years for me because I was happy. I ended up getting the Player of the Year and that was the only thing I ever won as a player. That was because I was happy and I used to love going into training because I knew I was learning all the time from him. Some managers, I thought we were a waste of time. All they wanted to do was show off and nutmeg people in training. I used to think, ‘Why do you nutmeg somebody, lose the ball, and you’re happy?’ Surely you’re better off putting the ball alongside somebody and keeping it?”

Which brings us to Warnock’s managerial mantra today. Given his age and experience, it is perhaps understandable that, in some quarters, he has been branded a dinosaur, an out-of-touch relic when posited against some of the youthful innovators occupying opposition dug-outs.

Well, Middlesbrough have tried their fair share of ‘youthful innovators’ in the last few decades, and look at how that has ended up. Warnock makes no apology for relying on the tried-and-trusted methods that have served him so well in the past, and can point to his plethora of promotions as proof that his approach works. Yes, he might adopt would could be branded an ‘old-fashioned’ viewpoint. But what is wrong with that if it produces results?

The Northern Echo:

“Do you know what my biggest bugbear in football is,” he asked, seemingly unable to stop the frustration spilling out of his mouth. “It’s when a team is losing 1-0, 85 minutes on the clock, and they get a free-kick on the halfway line. Then the ball ends up going back to the goalie, and I just don’t understand it.

“I mean I know I’m 71, but surely you’ve got to try to score a goal? You get the centre-halves in the box and put the ball in there. It does my head in really. Twenty-five passes back to the keeper, and you’re losing 1-0?”

It seems safe to say his Middlesbrough team will not be doing that next season. It remains ‘his’ Middlesbrough team after he agreed to turn last season’s short-term salvage project into a more permanent recovery operation, and it does not take too long in his company – albeit remotely in these Zoom-driven days – to develop an understanding of why he was so willing to uproot to the opposite end of the country despite being able to draw his pension.

Take football away from him, and you suspect he would be lost. He tries his best at home, with his presumably long-suffering wife, Sharon – “I’ve been trying my best. I’ve tried not to splash so much when I’ve been washing the pots and I’ve made my bed occasionally, even though she does remake the bed when I’ve made it” - but you can imagine he would quickly become unbearable if his footballing passion was removed.

“Is this an addiction? I think so, yeah,” he said. “I don’t feel 71. I know I don’t look it – I’m a very good-looking lad for my age – but when I look around, I just feel good around people that I know I can get something out of.

“I always say to people, ‘Enjoy it while I’m here’. That’s how I am. You’ll enjoy me being around the place. I’m going to give it my best shot, and what will be, will be. That’s how I am.”

Now that his permanent position at Middlesbrough is confirmed, there is also a sense of tackling some unfinished business and ticking one of the remaining boxes on his managerial CV. Prior to June, Warnock had not managed in the North-East, an area he still regards as one of the hotbeds of the game, even if the recent record of the region’s teams would suggest otherwise.

He has come close on a number of occasions, not least with Middlesbrough, where his friendship with Steve Gibson has developed over a number of years and a succession of unsuccessful approaches. But it is further up the coast, at Sunderland, where he actually came closest to leading a North-East team.

“I was very close to managing Sunderland, and I should have took over there really,” he said. “I agreed to take over at Sunderland when Bob Murray was chairman (in 1992), and I like Bob, but I played with Malcolm Crosby at Aldershot and he was a lovely lad.

“They wanted me to take over straight away and they had an FA Cup game coming up. Of course, I said to them, ‘I like Malcolm, Bob, can we wait until they get knocked out of the Cup?’ And the rest is history (with Crosby going on to lead Sunderland to the FA Cup final).

“I was in Spain when they played in the final. I thought, ‘Well bloody hell, that’s another job gone’. That’s as close as I got. Mick Jones, my right-hand man, was a mad Sunderland fan, and he used to go on about the North-East, telling me what a great place it was.”

Not, of course, that Warnock needed telling. A bunch of schoolkids at Seaton Carew had already seen to that.