HE stood alone on the pitch after the final whistle.
Just Paul Warne and the Carrow Road turf, Rotherham United’s manager back at the arena where he’d watched all his football as a boy.
Eighteen miles away, in North Walsham his father, Russell, had seen Norwich City beat the Millers 3-1 on an internet feed.
Russell was too ill to be at the ground where he and his son had shared their love of the Canaries together. A lung disease meant he was attached to an oxygen supply and nearing the end of his life. Months later he would pass away.
Warne Junior, clad in black, a hunched figure with hands in his pockets, had only his thoughts for company that cold December 2018 afternoon as the players headed down the tunnel and the crowd dispersed.
He was pondering life, contemplating death. He was missing his dad.
His hometown club are the visitors to AESSEAL New York Stadium this weekend and the Rotherham boss knows it will be emotional, even though he will be watching from home while he self-isolates because of a coronavirus case in his family.
The two teams went their separate ways at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, the Canaries up to the Premier League, the Millers down to League One but now they’re together again in the Championship.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, the Norwich games mean more to me than any others this season,” says Warne, adopted by Yorkshire but attached to Norfolk by birth.
“I’ve never made any bones about the fact I’m a Norwich fan. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to beat them. I do.
“But, as you well know, my father and my grandparents on both sides of my family have all been Norwich fans. Most of my friends back home are.
“It’s a fixture I know all my mates who I played non-league football down there will look at. I get loads of texts the week of the Norwich game wishing me all the best and then if we’re fortunate enough to get a good result they hate me for a few days!”
Warne has led Rotherham to two League One promotions since taking charge in late 2016 and his side have made an encouraging start to their third attempt at staying in the second tier in the last five years.
So much so that, after a win and two draws in their first four matches, they emerge from the international break five spots above Daniel Farke’s 17th-placed team who haven’t won in three games since a September 12 opening-day triumph at Huddersfield Town.
A Canaries draw at Preston North End and narrow defeats at Bournemouth and at home to Derby County have followed their 1-0 victory at the John Smith’s Stadium.
Nothing would please Warne more than a second three-point haul of the campaign for the Millers, but he will have more than the result on his mind.
“I will definitely think about my dad on the day,” he says. “And I like that. I like thinking about my dad. It’s not a bad thing for me.
“Of all the games I manage in, the ones against Norwich feel the most surreal.
“The one at Carrow Road especially feels like that. Managing at Wembley in the play-off final seemed less surreal than managing at Carrow Road.
“I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because since a young age I’ve always been a Norwich fan. How many fans go on to manage at the ground where they used to watch their team?”
The last time the two teams clashed at New York, in March 2019, Norwich edged a titanic tussle 2-1 as they closed in on the Premier League and Rotherham were bravely slipping in the other direction.
Kenny McLean scored on the stroke of half-time, Semi Ajayi equalised and Ben Godfrey struck nudged the visitors in front again before they were left hanging on for dear life towards the end.
Their celebrity owner, Delia Smith, was watching from the West Stand as Warne’s men rose to the occasion like one of the TV chef’s souffles.
Afterwards, she headed downstairs to congratulate her team and bumped into Canaries striker Teemu Pukki in the corridor outside the away dressing room.
“It’s a great win,” she said. Pukki, still in his kit, his face stained with the sweat of his exertions, let out a huge sigh of relief and replied: “That was our toughest game this season.”
Eighteen months on, Warne is expecting more of the same: the same intense Rotherham effort, that same feeling of surreality.
“It is a match I’m looking forward to,” he says. “The Norwich game, since I’ve been a manager, always has a great effect on me. It definitely will again this year because I know my dad would have buzzed off it.”
Sadly, Covid-19 robs the encounter of its theatre and sense of occasion. In normal times, there would be a full house at New York and, with loved ones driving up from Norfolk, an even fuller one at Warne’s home in Tickhill.
“Yeah, the situation does sadden me,” the boss says. “My mum would have come up for the game. When the fixtures came out, we thought that the Norwich match, because it was the first one after the transfer window, might be the first game when crowds were allowed back in.
“This was nine weeks ago or whatever when we were a little bit more optimistic.
“A lot of my friends and family would love to come but, unfortunately, that won’t be the case.”
Confined to his home on Saturday afternoon because of the pandemic, Warne will, in many ways, feel a man alone again.
One man who was never alone was his father.
“He always used to say that the true measure of a person is how many people go to their funeral,” the boss recalls.
More than 500 turned up to remember Russell Warne.
PAUL Warne has never forgotten how his dream of playing for hometown club Norwich City was dashed.
As a teenager, the Rotherham United boss had a trial for the Canaries as he looked to break into professional football.
“I went home and waited for the phone to ring,” he says. “It never did.”
Warne spent several years in non-league circles with Diss Town and Wroxham before League Two Wigan Athletic finally handed him his chance just after he’d turned 24.
He went on to also play for the Millers, Mansfield Town, Oldham Athletic, Yeovil Town and the Millers again.
By the time he hung up his boots three days shy of his 39th birthday in May 2012, he had amassed more than 549 pro appearances, 294 of them with Rotherham.
“Nothing beats playing,” says the man who became Millers fitness coach before stepping up to be manager in November 2016.
“I tell my players that all the time. I tell them they have to make the most of every single day.”
One to watch
Still only 20, right-back Max Aarons is already approaching 100 matches for Norwich City. He was a key man in their 2018/19 Championship promotion and played throughout last season’s Premier League campaign. With his quickfire overlapping, he was superb in the Canaries’ 3-1 triumph over the Millers at Carrow Road in December 2018 along with fellow full-back Jamal Lewis who moved to Newcastle United in the summer.
The Canaries kicked off their league campaign with a 1-0 win at Huddersfield before drawing 2-2 at home to Preston North End. Since then they have lost 1-0 at Bournemouth and at Carrow Road against Derby.
Last time out
Rotherham pushed Norwich all the way at AESSEAL New York Stadium in March 2019 but lost 2-1 to a team who would go on to win promotion to the Premier League that season. The Millers were denied a clear penalty late on when Richard Wood was hauled down at a corner only for referee Oliver Langford to wave away their spot-kick appeals.
March 16 2019, Championship:
Millers 1 (Semi Ajayi) Norwich 2
December 1 2018, Championship:
Norwich 3 Millers 1 (Richie Towell)
January 14 2017, Championship:
Millers 2 (Jerry Yates, Tom Adeyemi) Norwich 1
October 15 2016, Championship:
Norwich 3 Millers 1 (Dexter Blackstock)
August 25 2015, League Cup:
Millers 1 (Paul Green) Norwich 2
April 25 2015, Championship:
Millers 1 (Jordan Bowery) Norwich 1
October 4 2014, Championship:
Norwich 1 Millers 1 (Paul Green pen)
The clubs have met 36 times since 1960, with the Canaries having 16 wins to the Millers’ nine. There have been 11 draws.
German Daniel Farke, a forward in his playing days, took over at Carrow Road in 2017 after spending two years as manager of Borussia Dortmund II. Now 43, he led Norwich to the Premier League in his second season, after finishing 14th in his first, but the Canaries dropped back to the Championship this summer after a single season in the top flight.
Man in the middle
Lancashire official David Webb last refereed Rotherham on that famous March 2019 night at QPR when the Millers won away in the Championship for the first time in nearly three years.
Barnsley v Bristol City
Birmingham v Sheffield Wednesday
Blackburn v Nottingham Forest
AFC Bournemouth v Queens Park Rangers
Brentford v Coventry
Luton v Stoke
Middlesbrough v Reading
Rotherham v Norwich
Swansea v Huddersfield
Wycombe v Millwall
Preston v Cardiff