IT was the best of times, with an unexpected promotion to the Premier League providing immense satisfaction, but it was also the worst of times too, with the tragic death of Emiliano Sala casting a cloud that continues to cause considerable pain almost two years on.

As he reflects on his time at Cardiff City ahead of this afternoon’s return to South Wales with his current employers Middlesbrough, though, Neil Warnock can justifiably claim that his achievements with the Bluebirds were among the very best of his career.

As has so often been the case as he has moved from job to job, when the 71-year-old was appointed Cardiff manager, he inherited a team and a club in crisis. On the pitch, his new employers were struggling to keep their head above water in the lower reaches off the Championship. Off it, Cardiff’s Malaysian owners, led by the controversial Vincent Tan, were desperately trying to win back public support after the catastrophic move to switch from blue to red strips had been hastily reversed.

The Cardiff City Stadium was a tinderbox, so at the time, it felt an inflammatory move to hand Warnock, renowned as an arch-agitator, control of the matches. However, rather than burning everything to the ground, the Championship promotion expert set about rebuilding bridges and slowly rekindling a flame that had just about flickered out.

He won the supporters’ trust by attending fans’ group meetings in the Valleys. He worked closely with Cardiff’s chairman, Mehmet Dalman, to repair some of the damage that had been caused by a series of ill-advised previous decisions. And most importantly of all, he set about building a squad that would go on to win promotion to the Premier League.

Yes, Cardiff would return to the Championship before he waved goodbye, ushered out in part by criticism on internet message boards . But from where he first started, his success in leading the Bluebirds back to the top-flight was genuinely remarkable.

“When I took over at Cardiff, they were a broken club really,” said Warnock. “It was getting everything back singing off the same hymn sheet that made it probably the best job I’ve done really. Getting fans to believe again and support the board, and all get together, it was a great feeling.

“The Cardiff crowd is almost like a Yorkshire crowd – they’re all blood and guts, and that’s how I like it. It was a great move for me and I really enjoyed it. I don’t really think enough was made of the success we had there. To achieve promotion to the Premier League with that group of players was probably the biggest achievement I’ll ever have.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, with Sala’s death in a plane crash causing understandable grief. The Argentinian striker died just days after joining Cardiff from Nantes for a club-record £15m fee, and Warnock was left to deal with the aftermath of the shocking events.

He was the figurehead asked to articulate Cardiff’s suffering, as well as the father figure who had to help his players deal with an unprecedented situation.

“You can’t cater for something like that,” he said. “It was a very emotional time, but I thought the Cardiff fans were fabulous. I’ve got nothing but praise for how they coped with it. The players were good – it affected one or two a little bit more than others.

“I think everybody came through it realising how important life is, really. It did put a new perspective on things for me. You’re only here for a short time, and you’ve got to enjoy it. I think that was one of the reasons I decided to call it a day there.”

Warnock’s big disappointment ahead of today’s reunion is that the Cardiff fans will not be there to greet him. The feeling is mutual, with an interviewer from BBC Wales speaking to Warnock yesterday and stressing just how fondly he is still regarded in the Welsh capital.

“I’d have loved to be with the fans, but I’ll see a lot of old friends because most of the lads are there,” said the Boro boss. “I watched them the other night, and nine out of the 11 were my lads really.”