Neil Warnock's soul and the importance of soccer

Sport is important. It keeps us fit, it keeps us connected, it gets us out of the house. It can also keep us awake at night, and if our team loses it can cause a disproportionate level of melancholy and disappointment that should make us question how we react to defeat, and also just how important sport really is. Which brings me to Neil Warnock.

The Cardiff City coach was in the news yesterday for what will doubtless become an iconic photograph. After the final whistle of his side's 2-1 home loss to Chelsea, Warnock walked on to the field and then stopped to stare long and hard at the static game officials, like a collie-dog rounding up three wayward sheep. It was the coach's way of telling referee Craig Pawson and his team that their failure to spot a clear offside on Chelsea's equalizing goal six minutes from time had eventually cost his relegation-threatened side three points. Let's call them important points.

Warnock said after the game that the defeat was "soul-destroying" and "a sickener." I'm sure there's a part of every sports fan who can sympathize with this over-the-top language, so shortly after going down to two late goals in the middle of a fight against relegation.

Nonetheless, let's rewind to the end of January, when Warnock offered a different perspective on what might destroy your soul or make you sick. A week after the plane carrying his new striker Emiliano Sala had crashed while crossing the English Channel, Warnock told the media that he had considered quitting soccer.

"You think 24 hours a day about whether to carry on," he said. "It's impossible to sleep. I've been in football management for 40 years and it's been by far the most difficult week in my career, by an absolute mile. Even now I can't get my head around the situation. Football is important, relegation and things are important, but in the context of life, it just opens everybody's eyes."

I'm not dredging up this quote to vilify Warnock, who has a job to do. His reaction to Sala's disappearance was wholly compassionate, and his recovery and re-focus on Cardiff's relegation struggle is entirely within the expectations of the man as both a human being and a well-paid coach at the game's highest level. It merely repeats what happens every time there is a tragedy connected with sport. We all agree that it puts the importance of playing mere games into perspective. Then a few days later it's back to slugging it out on the field, over-motivating your fellow players, fouling your opponents, and screaming at the referees.

On the surface, this appears like a philosophical contradiction. One minute we're saying that sport's importance diminishes to a speck when compared with our own mortality and the frailty of human existence. Then the next we holler about an offside call as though it might bring back to life the very dead we've recently mourned.

You can, however, see our skewed take on sport's importance in a more positive fashion. That is, a return to caring about essentially irrelevant goals, scores, points and trophies can be viewed as an affirmation of life. When Neil Warnock is back to standing where he belongs -- in front of a microphone moaning about referees -- then we can re-calibrate our grip on normality.

"You just have to move on, and put things at the back of your mind," Warnock said in early February, a week after saying that he'd considered leaving the game. "The [Cardiff] players have grasped that we have to move on and now we've got 13 cup finals."

It makes perfect sense that most sports are competitive, and that in the end the teams are divided into winners and losers. The results are, however, of far less consequence than the existence of sport itself. It will not ultimately matter to the human race whether or not Cardiff City are relegated this season. What matters is that there will still be a Cardiff City, and the club and its fans will count this season as part of their long and memorable history. Chelsea's offside goal will become part of the team's oral history, cursed about in the city's pubs for years to come.

And Neil Warnock? He's never been an easy man to like. Yet you can't help but like or even love the fact that he's there at all, stalking three referees like a bug-eyed coyote and making us laugh at what is, after all, only a game. Albeit a very important one.

(Chapter 10 -- 'Death: Leyton Orient v Wrexham, June 3, 1989' -- of Ian Plenderleith's latest book, "The Quiet Fan," goes into more detail about the relationship between life, death and sport. His previous book was an analysis and history of the North American Soccer League, "Rock n Roll Soccer.")

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