HE’S played against Cesc Fabregas, occupied a touchline with Gianfranco Zola and shared a post-match drink with Rafa Benitez, but for Paul Warne the little-known name of Bruce Cunningham towers above any other.
Cunningham is the man who engineered Warne’s break into professional football and, nearly a quarter of a century later, the Rotherham United boss is still there: 16 years as a player, a spell as a fitness coach, now one of the game’s up and coming managers.
Without Cunningham, Warne would still be in non-league.
Memories have come drifting back for the Norfolk-born 46-year-old since the Millers won at National League Maidenhead United in the FA Cup and then drew Solihull Moors from the same division in a televised second-round tie to be contested this Monday.
Warne was 23 when he first encountered the man who 12 months later changed his life.
“I went to Wroxham FC, we won three trophies in one season and I scored 28 goals or something,” he recalls.
“A lot of ex Norwich City pros have ended up playing at Wroxham over the years. John Deehan was one of them and my manager at the time, Bruce Cunningham, knew him.
“John had gone to manage Wigan Athletic in the old Second Division (now League One) and Bruce had kept in touch with him.
“Bruce told him: ‘You need to come and have a look at this lad. He’s absolutely on fire for us.’ That’s how my move happened.”
Warne spent the best part of a decade in non-league. He never faced a league side in the cup but he did come up against them in pre-season clashes and understands what the impending contest at the 5,500-capacity Damson Park will mean to the Moors boys looking for a league opportunity like the one he was granted.
“If I was a non-league player facing a league team in the FA Cup, I would think: ‘This is my chance in the sun.’,” he says
“I’d prepare the best I could, eat the best I could, sleep the best I could, train as hard as I could. Something inside of me would make me get in the team for that game.
“All my family and friends would be watching. And maybe, just maybe, if I had the best game of my career something might happen on the back of it.
“There have been plenty of FA Cup games on the telly over the years that have led to non-league players going on to have league careers.
“I’m not saying they got a move straightaway but they’re suddenly on people’s radars. Solihull’s goalkeeper or centre-foward might have an unbelievable game against us and recruiters watch everything. It can lead to something.
“That’s how you feel if you haven’t played professionally before. Some of the Solihull lads will be right at the start of their football journey and they’ll be thinking this match is a great chance for them.”
Warne, who has led his League One team into the play-off reckoning, knows from experience how dangerous it can be for league outfits when they drop down into unaccustomed non-league territory.
And Solihull are no ordinary non-league side. Managed by former Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper and winner of the Premier League Tim Flowers, they finished second last term and are among the contenders to win a place in the Football League again this time around.
“Their coaching staff are ex pro. The manager played for England!” Warne says. “I didn’t play at as high a standard in non-league as the Solihull lads are doing. I was several levels lower. They’re full-time players so they’re a bit different to what I was when I was 22/23.
“When I was with Oldham Athletic, we went to Chasetown in the FA Cup in 2005. It finished 1-1 and we were lucky to escape with a draw. We did well to survive.
“That was proper league v non-league. I don’t regard us playing Solihull as being quite like that. Solihull are up at the top of the National League whereas Chasetown were way below that.
“The home advantage and the state of the pitch really suited Chasetown. When we got them back to our place, we won the replay 4-0 and it could have finished 15-0.
“Having the home advantage is massive for the non-league team. Most shocks happen that way round.”
With a teenage rejection from Norwich City and a university degree in PE under his belt, the Millers boss was working full-time and playing part-time when Cunningham’s intervention allowed him to realise his dream.
“Realistically, if that relationship between Bruce and John hadn’t existed I wouldn’t have turned pro,” Warne reflects. “No chance.
“I went from there to making my league debut after about two months and then scoring on my first start as a professional in a 2-0 win at Blackpool.
“I set one up, scored one and was thinking: ‘This is easy.’ I’d gone from three or four leagues below the National League to League One in a heartbeat.
“I’ve told the Rotherham lads they can’t under-estimate the players in non-league. There are loads of players in there who, given the right break, could play league football.
“I had the potential to play pro but sometimes you need a lucky door to open at the right time. I was fortunate that someone was kind enough to try to help me out. I’ll never forget that.”
He won’t forget that his big opening didn’t come sooner either: “Before I joined Wroxham, I played for Diss Town and we beat Northampton Town around 7-0 in a pre-season game.
“I’m thinking: ‘Why aren’t Northampton signing me? We’ve absolutely whupped them.’ I’m sure I scored a couple that day. Honestly, Mate, I was great!”
It was that single stellar campaign under Cunningham in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division that proved to be Northampton’s loss and Wigan’s gain.
“I had a couple of trials here and there but they didn’t come to anything,” Warne says. “ I spent six or seven years with one club: Diss, near Ipswich. Then I left them and went to Wroxham for one season.
“I’d finished university and I wasn’t commuting like I had been with Diss. I had one year with Wroxham where I was unbelievable. Everything I hit went in. I never, ever lost playing for that club.
“For the first six weeks I was suspended. You got ridiculous punishments at that level in those days. In the last game of the season before, it was my team, Diss, against Wroxham, who I was signing for.
“I got sent off. I knew I was leaving and I was overly wound up. I think I abused a linesman for a rubbish decision and that was the end of my match.”
A year after the red card, Warne was giving up the day job.
“I ran a coaching company called PASS Soccer,” he says. “The company was owned by Paul Ashworth, the brother of Danny Ashworth who is now head of Brighton & Hove Albion.
“I worked for that company in the summer holidays. By the time I had graduated from uni the company had been sold to an American investor and then I ran that company.
“I used to take representative teams on soccer tours to America. It was a good job. I loved it. I did it full-time for a year and then I turned pro.”
After back-to-back away matches in the league, Rotherham are looking to avoid an upset in knockout competition in front of the BT Sport cameras and the man with the non-league pedigree has a final non-league warning.
“Solihull are doing really well in the National League,” Warne says. “They’re flying in that division and doing great at home especially.
“Their players will be out to prove to people they’re good enough to be league players. That extra bit of motivation is a weapon they have that we have to be aware of.”
To the victors, a place in the third round and, potentially, a tie against one of the top-flight giants, yet Monday will be a night for anything other than glamour.
The Millers boss won’t be thinking about Fabregas, Benitez or Zola, or 11-time international Flowers, or teams like Liverpool or Manchester City lying in wait at the next stage.
He might, though, spare a thought for Bruce Cunningham.
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