It was immediately evident to anyone playing the 1993/94 version of Championship Manager, even with their senses shredded from seven hours staring at a fuzzy PC monitor, that Paul Warhurst was a special player. Rated 18 for pace, 15 for heading and 14 for tackling, he looked useful enough from his attributes. But it was his position that set him apart: DEF ATT C.
On first glance it looked like a mistake. It’s common to have players that straddle the positions of defence and midfield (e.g. Graeme Le Saux) or midfield and attack (e.g Don Hutchison). But centre-back and centre-forward? That doesn’t make sense. A defender who can play up front. A striker who can play in defence. It goes against all logic. It’s either a glitch in the machine or a hallucination induced from “one more game” too many.
But it was no mistake. While goalscorers such as Chris Sutton and Dion Dublin could do a job at the back, Paul Warhurst was one of the few - if not the only - player of his generation who could play both positions with equal effectiveness.
Although strangely enough, Warhurst originally did neither. He started his career at Oldham Athletic as a right-back. The second-tier Latics were an unfashionable but upwardly mobile outfit at the time, reaching the 1990 FA Cup semi-finals and the league cup final in the same season. Promotion to the top flight came the following year, at which point Sheffield Wednesday - who had also just been promoted - snapped up Warhurst for £750,000. It was the Owls who switched him into the centre.
“One of the quickest defenders to have played for us, assured and technically good on the ball,” was how one Wednesday fan on the Owls Online website remembered Warhurst, who helped Trevor Francis’s side finish third in the league in 1991/92. But when Wednesday’s front two of Mark Bright and David Hirst got injured the following season, Francis was forced to use his centre-back as a makeshift striker. Warhurst was initially reluctant, but the switch went better than player or manager could ever have dreamed.
The pace and composure that set Warhurst apart in defence turned out to be even more effective in attack. “He made the transition look ridiculously easy, he was a natural striker,” said one fan. Warhurst went on a scoring run of 12 goals in 12 games to rebrand himself as one of the most feared forwards in the league. He was called up to the England squad (being sadly - and somewhat prophetically - denied a cap due to injury) and propelled the Owls to two cup finals - both against Arsenal. That was where the problems started.
When the Owls suffered a defensive injury crisis ahead the FA Cup final replay against the Gunners, and with Hirst and Bright fit again, Francis asked Warhurst to return to his old position. Once again the player was reluctant to switch and this time he made the point more forcefully, prompting a bust-up that was never healed - especially with the club’s fans.
“We were fairly rubbish in the match and eventually lost, which Warhurst took a lot of (deserved) criticism for,” explained one of several Wednesdayites who blamed the defender-cum-striker-cum-defender for disrupting the club’s cup final preparations.
But by now Warhurst was hot property, and when moneybags Blackburn Rovers paid £2.7m for him, it was time for the Championship Manager makers to add another string to his bow. At Ewood Park, he would be reinvented again as a classy, box-to-box midfielder. It was another seamless transition, until disaster struck.
“He was a great player who was completely at ease wherever he played. He had pace, two good feet, good control, heading and tackling ability, passing skills,” said a fan on the BRFCC website. “Rovers played in him in midfield and he was looking a perfect fit there when he broke his leg. It was a tragedy for the player and the club that he never properly recovered.”
Warhurst only managed nine games in his first season at Rovers, and when he returned the following year for he had been downgraded to “utility player”.
“It didn’t do him justice. He would have been an England regular without his injuries. He was just getting into his stride when he got injured,” said another Rovers regular.
Warhurst still played an important role in Blackburn’s title-winning campaign, but in March of that season he broke his leg for a second time. As one fan put it, “It was curtains after that.”
His endured two more injury-hit seasons at Ewood Park before moving to Crystal Palace, where he was a shadow of his former self. The only similarity to the swashbuckling player of four years earlier were the distinctive white tie-ups holding up Warhurst’s socks.
“I can’t really remember anything memorable - good or bad - about his games for Palace, except that he never really produced the form or goals we were hoping for,” summarised one Eagles fan.
At 29 years old and with his career slipping into mediocrity, it was time for another reinvention. Warhurst moved to Division One Bolton under a new guise of midfield hardman.
“He became one of Sam Allardyce’s early lieutenants on the field, the sort of grizzled Northerner you want on the second-tier battleground,” extolled one Bolton fan on the Wanderer website.
Although injuries continued to dog Warhurst - he would never again manage 30 games in a season - he established himself as an influential cog in the Wanderers side that achieved promotion and then held its own in the Premiership. His 110 appearances for the Trotters would be more than he made anywhere.
Given his injury problems, Warhurst showed remarkable longevity after leaving the Reebok Stadium, turning out for 10 more teams in the lower leagues before retiring at 38. In total, he scored 33 goals in his entire 464-game career - 18 coming in that season for Sheffield Wednesday.
Warhurst holds the rare position of having been the deadliest striker in England, but just for one year.
“Being known for his versatility after switching from defence to attack probably did him no favours in terms of fans’ perceptions. I remember him as a really good footballer who had a bit of everything except injury resistance,” concluded one Bolton supporter.
Another agreed: “Great player and ultra reliable (when fit). The position of playing as a deep midfielder sitting just ahead of the centre-backs was invented for him.”
To that you can add full-back, centre-back, attacking midfielder and striker. At various points, virtually every position on the pitch seemed like it was invented for Warhurst. By the latter stages of his career, his Championship Manager profile had been updated to an DMA RLC. An unprecedented tribute to a unique player.
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