The following is an exclusive extract from former Cardiff City correspondent Dominic Booth’s new book “My Kind of Club: The Inside Story of Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City.” Kenneth Zohore thrived on Warnock’s watch, at least initially, and this is how he managed it.
“Warnock was a mediator as much as a football manager and his interactions with supporters, players, press and club executives were all of the utmost importance. Throughout the quest to win promotion, his man management came to the fore on several occasions and a number of Bluebirds players during that period would cite Warnock as a catalyst for their careers.
He had huge faith in midfielder Joe Ralls, about whom supporters had been unconvinced until Warnock made him a cornerstone of the side. The same could be said of Sean Morrison, who remained Warnock’s captain throughout his three-year tenure and whose performance levels increased dramatically under the Yorkshireman. Lee Peltier had always seemed a ‘Warnock player’, dependable, committed and fierce in defence, while Bruno Manga was much more consistent with Warnock than under previous managers.
Kenneth Zohore is a perfect example of Warnock’s ability to change a player’s mindset, and therefore their performances for the better. The Danish forward had come from nowhere in the latter part of the 2016/17 campaign to make himself Cardiff’s number one striker, having been labelled unselectable by the Bluebirds’ coaches at the start of that season.
Paul Trollope had initially harboured hopes that Zohore, who spent time on trial at Chelsea as a teenager, would come good. The former Cardiff boss agreed to turn Zohore’s loan from KV Kortrijk – a Belgian club also owned by Vincent Tan – into a permanent deal in the summer of 2016. Zohore had offered glimpses of his obvious ability in 2015/16, scoring two goals in 12 appearances under Russell Slade.
But keeping him at the club was a gamble. This was a 22-year-old striker who already had a chequered footballing CV, which also included an exciting emergence at FC Copenhagen, a footballess spell at Fiorentina and tours of the Danish and Belgian leagues. He was a Denmark Under-21 international, but he had rarely found consistency.
Cardiff themselves had endured issues with strikers for a number of years. Even when they stormed to the top of the Championship and won promotion in 2012/13, their top scorers were midfielders with modest totals: Aron Gunnarsson and Peter Whittingham with eight apiece. In the intervening years, nobody surpassed a tally of more than 11 for a league campaign and it was infuriating for supporters who just wanted to see goals.
“We’ve not had a proper goal scorer in the club since Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd,” says fan Aled Blake, referring to the dynamic strike partnership of the Dave Jones era. It was an issue that became a festering sore for Bluebirds fans. Where were the reliable goal scorers?
Warnock, upon arrival in October 2016, immediately marked down the centre-forward role as a problem position. He was told by coaches James Rowberry and James McCarthy, who had been there under Trollope, that Zohore was not the answer.
“When we came in we were just about to let Ken Zohore go on a free transfer back to Belgium,” says Warnock. “They told us he was no good and everything else.”
But Warnock wasn’t prepared to give up so easily. He had signed Marouane Chamakh on a free transfer in his first week as manager because he knew he needed a striker — and current number 9 Rickie Lambert was not going to be the solution. Neither was Chamakh in the end, he left after three months and never found another professional club.
But everyone would get their chance, Warnock decreed. “We watched him in a couple of practice games and he just had something,” he adds on his first impressions of Zohore. “I had a chat with him about him being at the crossroads of his career. I said: ‘you’ve got something you know, but you’ve got to show it’. He had all the attributes to play like I wanted him to play. But I couldn’t rule what was inside his head.”
Zohore needed guidance. Again for Warnock it was another Adel Taraabt situation: a player who the manager believed he was the best mentor for, a project that would be the litmus test for the new Cardiff boss’ famed man management skills. Could he be the man who finally got the best from Kenneth Zohore?
Warnock persisted with Lambert for a time, but the arduous Championship fixture schedule was taking its toll on the veteran forward, who struggled to complete 90 minutes every three days. The Bluebirds needed a credible alternative, someone with Lambert’s physicality but more energy to go with it.
After a few weeks of solid training, Warnock ushered Zohore into the fray on a cold December night at home to Wolves. Matt Doherty’s long range shot had given the hosts an early 1-0 lead, with Cardiff struggling to gain a foothold in the contest as Anthony Pilkington led the forward line. Lambert and Zohore were both on the bench and, at half-time, Warnock turned to the young Dane.
“The crowd were trying to help us but it was a cold night,” remembers Warnock. “Ken was on the bench and we didn’t look like scoring.”
Warnock collared Zohore into the changing room’s shower area, the only place available for the private one-to-one discussion that needed to take place, and told the striker this was his do-or-die moment. Having not even featured under Warnock before, the Cardiff manager was now pinning his hopes on Zohore. He trusted his player’s ability, it was merely a case of mindset.
Warnock adds: “I was leant on a wheelie bin in the shower and I said: ‘Listen Ken, this is it for you’ and he said: ‘what do you mean, gaffer?’ and I said: ‘this next 45 minutes will decide whether you stay here or whether you go, because I’ve had enough of you, this hasn’t been good enough’.
“I said: ‘I’m gonna put you on now for 45 minutes and I’m not bothered if you have a stinker, I want you to cause havoc and run and die for me like you’ve never done in your life, because it’s not just for me, it’s for your future, this, do you understand?’
“And he said yes and his eyes were bright and clear and he went out and did what nobody else thought he could do, it was like a miracle. At that time it was so crucial for him because he just hadn’t fulfilled his potential.”
Zohore was a revelation. He never stopped running and changed the pace of the game, as Cardiff came from behind to win 2-1 with goals from Pilkington and Matt Connolly. Warnock could sense something stirring in Zohore that night. It was his eureka moment.
The Dane scored his first goal under Warnock a fortnight later, in a belligerent display at Brentford, before embarking on a remarkable scoring streak from the final day of January until April 1st. He scored 10 goals in 11 games, one of them a stunning solo effort against Preston, and finished the season as Cardiff’s top scorer with 12.
It wasn’t an entirely prolific total to compete with Bothroyd or Chopra of yesteryear, but for a player who had been discarded and tossed on the scrapheap midway through the campaign, it was a fine effort.
“There was not a player here like that when I came here,” Warnock reflected towards the end of that season. “He was not a waste of time, but he wasn’t far away from being a waste of time. He walked about, wouldn’t tackle, wouldn’t chase back and he wore gloves everywhere.
“The minimum you should get out of a player is 100 percent. Then the ability goes on top. You need that work ethic at any level of the game. When you do that, you make your own luck, as Gary Player used to say.”
That ethos summed up Warnock’s management style, which had been personified on the pitch by the revitalised Zohore. He demanded full-blooded commitment from his players in every game and the penny had now dropped for the Danish forward.
My Kind of Club is published by Reach Sport and is out now