Burton then, Burton now ... Rotherham United manager Paul Warne's journey from the days of blood and tears

Burton then, Burton now ... Rotherham United manager Paul Warne's journey from the days of blood and tears

By Paul Davis | 16/08/2019

Burton then, Burton now ... Rotherham United manager Paul Warne's journey from the days of blood and tears
Paul Warne

HE cried a lot, ate little and survived on strong coffee.

At night, he gnashed his teeth during the anxiety-ruined sleep of a new football manager and stirred from his troubled slumbers to find his mouth full of blood.

It's more than two and a half years since Paul Warne gave up on normal life to become the boss of the club he loves.

December 3 2016, saw him take charge of his first match, at Burton Albion, during a season when relegation from the Championship for Rotherham United was already a certainty.

There were tears before, tears after. It all got a bit emotional in the days surrounding his baptism of fire.

Tomorrow, Warne returns to the Pirelli Stadium for the first time since that winter's day when he was certain his team would win but had his heart broken by a 2-1 defeat.

It seems so long ago.

“I'm not as optimistic as I was then. I've been blighted by poison since!” he grins.

“We always talk about how when I first took over everything was wrong, but not everything was wrong. I had some unbelievable players here.

“I had Tom Adeyemi, Izzy Brown, Danny Ward. Joe Mattock was here, so was Richard Wood. I had some good characters. It was just the fact that, individually and collectively, they'd lost their way a little bit.”

Warne stepped into the hot-seat on the Wednesday following the short reign of Alan Stubbs and even shorter stay of Kenny Jackett. Saturday brought the droop against the Brewers.

“I naively believed that if I got a really positive environment in the space of three days with  a magic wand then that would be enough,” he recalls. “I'm a massive fatalist and I'm a bit of a romantic as well.

“I read no end and it's all about how it doesn't matter how talented your players are, if the culture's not there you will never win. That's why I like the All Blacks and all their stuff. However, I don't think you can get a culture in place in three days.

“Looking back at myself, I kind of think 'Oh, bless your heart'. I was stressed to death back then. I do have a wry smile at how naive I was.

“I know we lost but I look back at the game now and think the lads were brilliant. They tried really hard for me. They were desperate to win.

“Although we lost and I was devastated by losing, looking back now it doesn't disappoint me because the lads were as good as we could get them at that time and they gave me everything they'd got.

“As a memory, despite what most people would probably think, it isn't dark for me. It's the opposite.”

Since then, there has been a winning trip to Wembley, promotion from League One and a stirring season in the second tier that earned Rotherham nothing but admiration and respect despite the fact they ultimately suffered the drop.

This weekend, the Millers head to Burton looking for a second win in three League One matches after an opening-day triumph at AFC Wimbledon and a surprise 2-0 defeat when they weren't at their best against Lincoln City last weekend.

Warne has changed since the early days of management. He's wiser, more in control. Yet some things have stayed the same.

“I haven't become hardened to defeat,” he accepts. “Defeat is still brutal. Saturday night was a write-off.

“Then on Sunday I got my daughter some wardrobes from Ikea that took me five hours to put together. But it was five hours of bliss.

“I got everything out properly and I'd treated myself to a power screwdriver. I had to concentrate on every screw and nut. Because I did that, it made me not think about football for five hours, which was brilliant.”

He's still drinking strong coffee and he nurses a mug as we chat. But the tears are long gone. And he eats properly these days.

“I'm hopefully not as hard on myself but I am still pretty hard,” he says. “I couldn't carry on as I was back then. I'd have possibly been dead in six months.

“My family life is better. Although you'd better ask my missus. Saturday night, I was horrendous. Sunday, I was all right because of the wardrobes.

“Last year we lost or drew no end of games but we were nearly always the best we could be. I think if we're the best we can be and still lose, I'm all right. It's when we under-perform that I struggle.”

One-hundred-and-thirty-six matches have come and gone since that Burton debut and Warne is now an established manager.

However, the fatalist in him never lets him look too far ahead and he still marks his office calendar payday by monthly payday.

“If it ended for me at the club tomorrow, I'd think at least I've made a bit of mark,” he says.

“I've been part of trying to change the training ground, I've been part of making the club more accessible to people. I've had more visitors and more people watching our meetings and meeting the players than I've known any other manager allow.

“We got a promotion. We were respectable in the Championship. If it finished tomorrow, I don't think I've slurred my name at the club.”

He decides that this is all becoming a touch too serious. Humour doesn't define him, but it underpins him, protects him, helps him to cope. It's never far away.

The smile is in his eyes before the words are out of his mouth:

“I'm not suggesting that there should be a statue yet, but there should be preparation. There should be someone now who is looking at a big piece of stone or marble, like when Michelangelo did David, thinking 'Right, all I have to do now is chip Warney out'.

“It doesn't have to be a big bit of marble. 5ft 8in will be enough. It's a long process and they need to start now. They can't start it after I've been sacked because it's going to take about three years.”

Burton's tight little ground will look much the same this weekend as it did 32 months ago. The landscape at Rotherham, though, is unrecognisable from December 2016.

“I've surrounded myself with better people. That is 100 per cent fact,” Warne says. “I have probably hardened a little bit.

“Against Lincoln, for example, I'm standing there and I'm thinking 'This doesn't look like us'. But there's no point me having a mental breakdown because I can't really affect anything until half-time or until there's a drink break.

“I stood there moaning at the ref about how long Lincoln were taking with goal-kicks but it makes no difference half the time. You just get yourself in a state for no reason.

“At Burton, I kicked every ball. I still do that, to be honest, but I don't take it so personally when we lose. When we lost last Saturday, I didn't think as I left the ground that everything was my fault. I've definitely grown in that respect.

“If we now lost the next three games and I got sacked, I wouldn't blame myself. I'd think that I'd done everything that I thought was right.

“At Burton, we didn't win and at the time I felt I'd let everyone down. But now I think I didn't let anyone down that day. You can't do more than try your best, can you?”

He drains his mug and prepares to head off for a team debrief into the Lincoln loss. Whatever he said worked because the following day his side thrash Shrewsbury 4-0 in the Carabao Cup.

Before he goes, he suddenly reflects on the most important thing on his mind right now.

“That power screwdriver has changed my life, by the way,” he says. “Why have I not had one before?”

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