PAUL Warne is approaching four years in charge of the Millers. There have been lows, highs, tears, laughter and sleepless nights. In the first instalment of a two-part feature, the boss talks to PAUL DAVIS about the journey.
SILENCE. In an interview with Paul Warne. This is unusual.
The fourth anniversary of his appointment as Rotherham United boss is pending and I’ve just asked him what’s the single thing he’s done in that time that makes him most proud.
Two promotions aren’t at the top of the list. It goes deeper than that.
“I don’t know,” he says and the hush of uncertainty hangs heavy in the air. “That’s a good question.
“What makes me the proudest?” he repeats to buy time. “There are always little nuggets, I think: for example, when Ben Wiles signed his new contract the other month.
“It’s not a hoo-hah, shout-from-the-rooftops thing, but he’s a lad from Rawmarsh who comes though the youth system and Hammy (coach Matt Hamshaw, also from Rawmarsh) plays a big part in his development.
“Then he gets in the first team and does well, plays in the Championship, then he does well in League One and plays in a million different positions and doesn’t get the credit he deserves, then we give him a new contract.
“That is some reward for the management team. It makes me feel great. The chairman supports me and his backing allows me to give a player who still has two or three years on his deal a new, better contract worthy of his ability.
“That is something I haven’t seen at this club before. I feel like it’s a real step forward. It’s a really nice feeling for the coaches that Wilesy gets rewarded.”
When the Millers face AFC Bournemouth at AESSEAL New York Stadium a week on Saturday, it will be four years to the day since chairman Tony Stewart turned to Warne after the shock resignation of Kenny Jackett.
Championship relegation was inevitable that season. Rotherham went up the following year, came back down the next and were promoted again in the campaign after that.
Downs and ups. Ups and downs. It may seem like a rollercoaster reign, but it’s anything but. Behind the scenes, the boss has, quietly, calmly, intelligently, painstakingly changed beyond all recognition a club that was in football crisis. Four years of improvement inspired by 24:7 devotion.
“Getting promotions is obviously great,” he says. “Last year’s was a bit weird because of coronavirus but I still thought we’d have done it even if the season hadn’t been cut short.
“I’m even more proud to do it straight after relegation. I think being a leader is easy when things are great. But being a leader when things aren’t great is tough. To go straight back both times after relegation gives me massive pride.
“The lads didn’t lose belief in what we were saying when, in fairness, different players would have. They’d have been like: ‘What are we listening to this guy for? He’s taken us down.’
“The lads never losing belief in the staff is great. And that’s reciprocal — the staff have never lost faith in the players. That bond is the biggest success, I think.
“When I speak to players who have left ... while they don’t regret leaving, they miss being here. That gives me great pride. I’ve spent so long at the club. All the lads know what I think of the club. If they have the same affinity and affection, it feels like we’ve done something right.”
Covid-19 restrictions mean I can’t meet him at the training ground so we’re talking on the phone earlier this month. It’s all about the last four years but Norfolk-born Warne’s Rotherham allegiance, as player, fitness coach and manager, stretches to nearly 20.
It’s well before 9am but he’s already at Roundwood helping to set up for the 10.30am session. The wind is blowing through our mobile connection, forcing him to raise his voice at times, and I can hear his dog somewhere in the background.
His reflections are interjected with more mundane, day-to-day conversations with his staff. “One sec, Mate. ‘Oi, Hammy, is that how you want them cones? They’re all right there, are they? Cheers.’”
He was happy as a fitness coach. Being a boss wasn’t really for him. He hardly ate for five days or slept for five nights before that first match at Burton Albion on December 3. Even now, the worry of the job is a constant bedfellow.
“I wouldn’t say the ‘imposter’ syndrome hits me as many times but I don’t think you’ve ever got it sussed,” he says. “I don’t think that ever.
“If we win on Saturday, you have probably one day to enjoy that and then the next game is on. If you win that, you think ‘Great’ but then ... well, we were on a great run last year, lost at Rochdale and suddenly you’re thinking: ‘What’s happened there?’
“Football has a really good ability to kick you in the ‘cojones’. There are times in games when you’re thinking ‘We look great, this is okay’ then you get punched in the face and something happens that you didn’t see coming.
“Then you question everything. ‘Have I set ‘em up wrong? What else haven’t I done right?’ I can honestly say I still have obscene amounts of self-doubt. Possibly that’s a good thing. It makes you want to cover everything.
“We never walk into a game in any league thinking: ‘We’ve got this sussed.’ Not ever. I still suffer horrendous self-doubt but I probably talk myself out of it quicker than I used to.”
After a spell as caretaker boss, he had to be talked into accepting the permanent position. Privately, he said ‘yes’, then ‘no’ then he said ‘yes’ again, all in the few days leading up to the early-April announcement in 2017.
Brother Neil had agreed he should reject it before phoning back to confess he’d only been saying what he thought Warne wanted to hear and that he actually believed he should take it. ‘Otherwise, you will never know.’
The clincher was Stewart’s question: ‘Would you be happy watching somebody else do the job and thinking you could do it better?’
Warne assumed control after the damage inflicted by Alan Stubbs’ disastrous recruitment and Jackett’s quickfire flit and that first campaign was horrific.
While he was working to rid the club of the toxic presence of some players whose hearts weren’t in the red-and-white shirt, he had to watch his side surrender 5-0 at Cardiff City, an experience he describes as his worst ever in the game.
Warne and his Red Fox Labrador, Chief
Only it wasn’t Warne’s side in South Wales; not yet. Everything would change in the summer when he was able to bring in his own players, forsake some of his transfer budget to use the proceeds of Danny Ward’s sale to Cardiff to revolutionise outdated Roundwood and put the honour back into the club and the badge.
“Yeah ... thanks,” he says when I raise the topic of the transformation he’s wrought and, as is his way, immediately deflects the credit away from himself.
“I honestly think the group of players, the group of staff and the people who work behind the scenes here are really great people. That’s why I get really defensive if people criticise anyone.
“I think we’ve all been part of trying to change things. I know some fans hate the fact that I talk about what good people we have here, which is something I find weird.
“I couldn’t do anything without the help of Richie (number two Barker), Hammy, Woggy (goalkeeper coach Andy Warrington), Ross (head of player performance Burbeary) and now, to a certain extent, Scotty (head of recruitment Rob Scott).”
There are no silences now. Warne is chatting away, a natural communicator. He’s a hugger and a handshaker and the limitations imposed by Covid-19 have hit him hard.
The boss loves being surrounded by people, usually leading the banter yet laughing as hard as anyone if someone else says something funny. Comfortable with an audience but without ever craving centre stage, he is what he wants all his squad to be: a team player.
“Everybody knows what mantra I have,” he says. “For example, we had someone put to us in the summer who the recruiters liked. Richie knew something about him and said ‘Look, I’ve heard this.’
“Straightaway, the recruiters go: ‘Look, whether it’s true or not, the Gaffer won’t go anywhere near him.’ In that respect, I think everything has changed.
“Other people have different mantras. Some will say: ‘Look, it’s not about the person. You can win with bad people. You need some bad people, some rogues.’ That just isn’t who I am. I am all about legacy. When this job ends, whenever that may be, I have to leave this club in a better state than when I took over.
“With the chairman’s help, we’ve improved the training ground. Maybe naively I think there is a better rapport between the players and the fans. Maybe that’s just because we’ve won quite a lot of games. Obviously it’s a success-driven thing, innit?
“In that respect, I just feel it is a really happy club. It’s a lot easier to get players to come here now than it was four years ago. There is a lot more belief among the players. That’s credit to all my staff.
“It’s not just me. I’m just the one who sits at the top and does the press conferences. They’re the ones who drive it every day.
“We’ve tried to change the culture. We’ve tried to put in place something that I would have liked when I was a player. The way this club is managed and run is perfect for the way I would have liked it as a player.
“It isn’t ideal for everybody and that is why we have to sign people who have the same philosophies on football and life as me and my staff. In that respect, I think we have done something.”
Warne and Rotherham have come a long way since the February 2017 whitewash at the City of Cardiff Stadium assaulted his senses and his soul.
Defeat hurt even more because Neil Warnock — the previous season’s Millers manager under whom Warne had worked as fitness coach — was now in charge of the Bluebirds. Warnock’s decency and humility after the final whistle have never been forgotten by the younger boss.
Those two qualities are the foundation of Warne’s approach to life, to management. Despite the insecurities, he is essentially secure in himself, and the architect of so much change would wish for only one further adjustment.
“If I could alter anything, it would be that I wouldn’t worry as much,” he says. “I always remember someone telling me that if you’re not going to worry about it in five years, don’t worry about it now.’
“However, that is a very good saying which is bullsh*t. You can’t help but live in the moment, can you? I’ve worried over teams I’ve selected. I always knew I was going to pick this team, but I iffed and iffed and iffed.
“I don’t care what anyone says, it’s never nice telling a player he’s not playing. I’d be thinking ‘I’m dreading it, I’m dreading it’ and I would think about it for hours and hours but still come out with the same answer.
“If I could talk to myself a few years ago, I would say: ‘Look, Mate, you’re going to make wrong decisions. Just accept the fact that you’re going to do that and don’t worry about is so much.’
“Worry is the root of everyone’s life, though, innit? I always worry I’m not going to have enough to pay the mortgage or take the kids on a family holiday or not have enough time to listen to my daughter when she wants to tell me something about how the girls at school are arguing. That last one can go on forever!
“You spend all your time worrying, don’t you? I just wish I could worry less.”
Happily, in this instance Warne’s stress-buster is close by, providing light Labrador relief in an existence that has seen unparalleled pressure since that November 28 day in 2016 when he was handed Jackett’s car-park spot.
The Roundwood wind whistles again, even more deafening than the earlier silence. “Hang on, Mate,” the manager hollers before barking out an order mixed with affection and pretend annoyance.
‘Chief! Chief!! Here, Boy. How many frickin’ times? Get out of that bush, will yer.’
ROTHERHAM UNDER WARNE
P46 W5 D8 L33 For 40 Against 88 Pts 23
Position: 24th *
* Rotherham had played 18 games and were already bottom and 12 points adrift of safety when Warne took over from Jackett on November 28
League One 2017/18
P46 W24 D7 L15 For 73 Against 53 Pts 79
Position: 4th (Millers promoted in play-off final)
P46 W8 D16 L22 For 52 Against 83 Pts 40
League One 2019/20
P35 W18 D8 L9 For 61 Against 38 Pts 62
Championship 2020/21 so far
P11 W3 D3 L5 For 10 Against 12 Pts 12