“I KNOW, I know,” he said in a sad voice.
Neil Warnock was musing on the reception he would have received had fans been allowed inside AESSEAL New Stadium.
The 72-year-old was the manager who performed the Championship Great Escape with Rotherham United five seasons ago and this was his first return to the scene of one of the most rewarding spells of his long career.
Millers supporters would have stood in their thousands to applaud him and Warnock, now boss of Middlesbrough, knew that the Covid pandemic had cost him another New York moment to savour.
He soon perked up. His team had won, he’d barked and bickered throughout the game, grimaced, groaned, laughed and cajoled. And he’d loudly called the referee a ‘tw*t’ and got away with it. Just a routine night for the Messiah.
The Millers are still in his heart.
“I wouldn’t be at Middlesbrough now if it wasn’t for Rotherham,” he said. “It was an amazing time.
“I had retired. I had packed in. It was only my missus, Sharon, having the chemo and wanting me out of the house. She kicked me out and made me want to come and help here.
“It was the best thing I ever did. I really enjoyed my time up here. It gave me my ‘buzz’ back. I think I’d lost that a bit, if I’m honest.
“I was all right but I didn’t have the ‘edge’. You need that edge, don’t you, when you get older and Rotherham gave me that. I was talking to the referee’s assistant before tonight’s game telling him about why this place is special.”
He’d walked into the press room last Wednesday to discuss Boro’s 2-1 victory. “Can I just say how good it is to see you in these parts again,” I ventured as I set down my voice recorder in front of him.
Recognising me from our time together when he’d left his Cornwall home to rescue the Millers, he appreciated the sentiment.
He was in his element, holding court with easy, relaxed humour, sharing a joke with a Boro scribe who’d broken away from the deadline-meeting bashing of his laptop to ask the first questions.
Warnock hasn’t aged since his Rotherham heroics when he defied all the odds to keep the club in the second tier. There was a Middlesbrough moniker on his tracksuit top, a spark in his eye. He’s still lacking in eyebrows but not in charisma.
“Those 16 games,” he grinned. “I’ll never forget them. I could tell you about nearly every one.”
One in particular: March 12 2016 when Darren Wassell and his promotion-chasing team came to town.
“Derby County ... I’ll never forget. Darren Wassell ... can you remember it?” he said.
“1-0 to them, 2-0 and he’s waving to the stand, 3-0 he’s blowing kisses. 82 minutes, 3-1, he sat back down. 88 minutes, 3-2, he went further back in the dugout. 93rd minute, 3-3 and I couldn’t even see him. Their fans were chanting him out then, weren’t they!”
“A few more minutes and it would have been 4-3 Millers,” I said.
“It would, Son!” he laughed. “We missed a chance, didn’t we? 95th minute. Aw, Besty (two-goal Leon Best). Great times. Bloody hell. We beat Sheffield Wednesday away. We had some fabulous results.”
Rotherham had won their three previous matches and would go on to win their next two.
It was a quiet press room last week: just Warnock, the Boro media chief and a few scribblers. All questions about that evening’s game had been and gone when I piped up about the 12 weeks and 16 matches that formed the Millers miracle.
He’d been getting up to leave but then stayed a while, happy to be given the chance to relive the experience.
“It was almost impossible to get out of, wasn’t it?,” he said. “We were six points adrift. Rotherham couldn’t get out of a mess like that, could they? It was great.”
Suddenly he name-checked Richard Wood, Millers skipper and one of only two players — Joe Mattock is the other — left at New York from those halcyon days:
“And Woody’s still here! I was pleased he wasn’t playing against us because he would really have tried his hardest tonight. He’s played so many games in his career.
“They were incredible lads. Who was I looking at the other day? Not Smallwood. Who was it who played with (Richie) Smallwood in midfield?”
“Lee Frecklington,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, Frecklington. He’s gone to play non-league for his uncle. I thought: ‘That’s just typical of Frecks.’ It made me smile. When I got him, he just wanted to play football, didn’t he? He’d have played anywhere. Sunday League. I loved Frecks and Smallwood.”
With that, he was gone, bidding cheery farewells and zipping up his club-issue gear ready for the journey back to Teesside.
To my eye, that white Boro badge didn’t suit him as much as the red Millers one used to.
SURVIVAL saviour Neil Warnock has called on Rotherham United to stick with manager Paul Warne even if they suffer the Championship drop.
The Millers look to be heading back to League One after picking up only four points in their last nine outings.
But Warnock, who memorably kept the club in the second tier during a 16-match spell in charge in 2016, says there is no better man for the job than Warne.
“I don’t think there is anybody more suitable than him for Rotherham, whatever happens this season,” he said.
“You need someone like that who is Rotherham through and through and who knows what he is doing.”
Warne, who has two Championship relegations and two League One promotions on his CV since taking the hot-seat four years ago, was fitness coach at AESSEAL New York Stadium when the Millers went on an 11-match unbeaten run to clinch their safety.
“He was a lovely young man,” Warnock, now boss of Middlesbrough, said. “I hope they stay up.”
The 72-year-old pointed to Rotherham’s small budget and their packed fixture schedule, caused by Covid postponements earlier in the season, as reasons for them being in the bottom three.
“Their wage bill does not need telling,” he said. “The only thing is, they have got a good group — the manager, backroom staff and the players give everything. They have had a right job with Covid.”
Warnock was at the recent New York clash with Birmingham City when the Millers lost 1-0 to a late goal and said: “I left before Birmingham scored and Rotherham should have been two or three up.
“I don’t know how they lost and I saw another couple of games where I could not believe they lost. They have had opportunities, but have ended up playing a lot of matches, haven’t they.”
Speaking after Boro had beaten Rotherham 2-1 at New York last Wednesday, Warnock said of the Millers’ prospects of staying up: “They’ve got to win difficult games.
“They’ll be disappointed tonight but they’ll be on the training ground tomorrow and Warney will get them going again.
“They’ll give everything. It might not be enough but they will give everything. You can’t ask more than that.”