PAUL Warne is holding court during an online get-together with the media.
He’s sitting in a room at his home in Tickhill in front of his MacBook, a grin on his face and a mug in his hand. The paint on the wall in the background is deep and tasteful and there’s a row of books on a shelf.
Pre-season is well under way and the manager is discussing the prospects of newly-promoted Rotherham United surviving in the Championship, a feat which has proved beyond them on the last two occasions they’ve rubbed shoulders with the big boys.
He’s taking a sip of his beverage when wife Rachel appears with another cuppa.
“Hang on, people. I’m just exchanging teas,” he says. “This kind of service doesn’t normally happen, by the way!”
Warne is in a happy mood. He’s speaking a couple of weeks ago and it’s his favourite time of the year, when the sun is shining, hope is as fresh as his squad’s new training clobber and the unrelenting pressure of prospering against the odds in the second tier has yet to kick in.
He plans to take his positive outlook into the new campaign which kicks off this weekend .
“We’re under no illusions about how difficult it is going to be in the league we’re in, but I think we can take it on with a real smile and determination,” he says.
“I don’t think you should put ceilings on people’s dreams, and I say that to the lads all of the time.”
Warne was a forward in his playing days and his natural inclination is to attack but memories of the 5-1 opening-day setback at Brentford at this level two years ago will temper his extravagance.
“Our intention is to play 4-4-2 if we can but it would be naive of us to think we could go to somewhere like Nottingham Forest on a Tuesday night and play that way.
“We might. We might not. We might play a variation of that and have a ‘sitter’ with one up top or we may even play a 4-3-2-1 — two sitting midfielders and the three in front with the licence to go forward. We have three systems, I think.
“Last season we set out wanting the lads to be the best at set-pieces, and I think we were. I still want us to be that.
“I’ve thrown down the gauntlet to the lads saying I want them to be the fittest team next year. That is some ask in the Championship because the players are real athletes.
“We have to get the players fit and resilient The lads have been absolutely brutalised in pre-season training this summer.”
The boss is right about the success of the set-play Millers last season. Not only did they create more goals from free-kicks and corners than any other side in League One, they scored more times from them than any team in England.
Set-pieces will be key again, especially in a division where Rotherham will be one of the smallest spenders. Two years ago, their wage bill was £7.8 million while Aston Villa were winning promotion to the Premier League by paying their players £95m
“It’s no surprise that the team with the biggest budget more often than not go up,” Warne says. “The teams coming up from League One aren’t going to jump from a £3 million budget or whatever to a £90m one.
“It’s about trying to stay in, trying to build; small steps. It isn’t easy. Better people than me have failed, better people than me have succeeded.
“You can see how tough the league is. There are some huge clubs in there. You’re competing not only against the players of those clubs, but also those clubs’ whole infrastructure: their training ground, all their knowledge; everything. It’s a massive, massive ask.”
The appearance of tea-making Mrs Warne interrupts his train of thought. She puts down her husband’s drink and prepares to make an unobtrusive exit.
“You’re now thinking I’ve married really well,” Warne says to reporters as she leaves the room. “Obviously, she is the lucky one.
“Thank you, My Love,” he adds to her retreating back. “I didn’t mean it ... it was a joke ... IT WAS A JOKE!”
The two fruitless attempts to stay up still bug him. The first, in 2017, following the carnage of Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett, wasn’t his fault as Rotherham were all but relegated by the time he took over. The second, in 2019, came after his side had put up an inspiring fight and the manager will use the agony and lessons learned of that near-miss to fuel him through the 2020/21 campaign.
“I honestly don’t look at that as an abject failure,” he says. “I wasn’t walking round Meadowhall with a bag on my head or anything like that.
“We couldn’t have worked any harder. The lads gave everything they had. I still regret the fact that we weren’t able to strengthen a little bit more in the January transfer window.”
He was asked what he sees as the key to survival this time around.
“You have to invest in your team,” he says. “You have to push your boundaries a little bit. The step up is so monumental.
“You have to keep your best players, first and foremost. You have to make them tactically and physically better. You have to get in players who are better than your existing best 11. You need six or seven better players than what you’ve already got.
“You have to have a coach who develops players. You have to have ‘buy in’ from your players and also your supporters. Fans have to understand the enormity of the games ahead of us.”
Six new players have arrived so far and there should be more signings before the transfer window closes next month.
“Up top we’re okay,” Warne says. “Everyone loves a striker, though, don’t they? We’ll bring in another striker/wide man/number 10 if we can.
“In midfield, we’re pretty good. We need probably one. We love a utility player. Anyone who can play left-back and left wing would be a result. We want pace and athleticism.
“We’ve also got to be aware of the fact that we could lose someone. One of our ‘stars’ might go. They might not, but we always have to be prepared for it.
“We’ll try to sign players who fit our mould and system, lads who want to come here and think: ‘This is the best club I’ve ever been at.’ They’re the sort of players we want and the sort that history suggests over the last few years that we’ve got the best out of.
“Players in the Premier League and Championship who have been earning £25,000 a week, I don’t think they suit our culture. It’s a bit of a waiting game. We won’t have our full squad together by the time we start playing again and that’s just the way it is.
“We might get better players the longer we wait. Loads of clubs are playing the waiting game and we are one of them.
“The players you bring in have got to be better than the ones you’ve already got. If I sign a midfielder, for example, and he’s no better than Ben Wiles, there’s no point in bringing him in.
“Also, you can’t have too many ‘projects’. In League One you can carry a few development players. In the Championship you can’t. No chance. If they can’t hit the ground running in the Championship then I think you’re struggling. You need players to join who you think will play 30-odd games.”
By now journalists’ questions have run as dry as Warne’s tea cup and the Zoom meeting is about to wrap up.
There’s no sign of his better half bearing another mug but the manager is hoping something good is brewing in the Millers’ camp for the forthcoming season.
“We want to attack the league and we’ll take defeats, as all teams do,” he says. “It is about how we react to that and how we can be the best version of ourselves.”
Rotherham have been transformed by Warne and his staff since 2017 and no other group of players in the Championship will give more to the cause than them.
But the boss is taking nothing for granted. Staying in the second tier would be a bigger achievement than either of his two League One promotions.
He leans forward to turn off his laptop, his thoughts drifting back to the quality and resources of the opposition two years ago.
It was a joke ... IT WAS A JOKE!
THE BOSS'S PAST LIFE IN THE CHAMP
PAUL Warrne’s two previous seasons as a Championship boss were very different.
The first time, as a rookie boss, he took over a Rotherham United ship left sinking by the disastrous, short-lived reigns of Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett and had no chance of saving the Millers.
The second time, after winning an instant promotion in League One, he was proud of his players as they refused to buckle against bigger sides and took their survival battle to the penultimate weekend of the campaign.
“I don’t take any responsibility for the first season in the Championship,” he says. “I don’t make any bones about it, I didn’t have a ‘Scooby’ what I was doing.
“The second year in the Championship, I take full responsibility for it. I thought we were excellent. Unfortunately, excellent for us wasn’t good enough, so we are going to have to up our game.”
Warne is ready for a third crack and has learned from his previous experiences. In 2018/19, Rotherham were hammered 5-1 at Brentford in their opening match before tightening up and giving teams with far bigger budgets a run for their money.
“I made an error last time by playing two up front in the first game of the season,” Warne says. “We lost and I literally threw that piece of paper out of the window.
“We can’t afford to be so knee-jerk. We probably have more confidence in ourselves and the players this time. I’m not saying, though, that we will play two up front away to a potential Premier League club.
“The questions will still be the same. It will still be ridiculously difficult but I think we can be a bit more ambitious.”
Warne led the Millers straight back to the second tier last season and has agreed a new contract with chairman Tony Stewart who, he says, has been nothing but supportive in their near-four-year partnership.
“No manager has ever survived three relegations at one club without getting sacked, I don’t think,” the boss says. “I might be the first. I don’t know.
“We have to aim to finish higher and hopefully we can. I don’t know. What I do know is that we went through so much stress, pressure and anxiety last year that we cannot go into the new season and not enjoy it.
“I think the fans will enjoy it when we’re back in the stadium. Hopefully the atmosphere will be electric. If we can then improve on our away form from last time in the Championship, which was abhorrent, we will give ourselves a chance.”
FINALLY, after the longest pre-season in history, the big kick-off is here.
We’re back in the Championship and I promise fans that we will be giving it everything we have to make sure we stay there.
We played in the League Cup last Saturday, which I didn’t think was ideal. I definitely did not want a cup game before the league started and would have much preferred to have played a Championship game on the Saturday and then had the League Cup match on the Tuesday.
I could have gone full strength in my league game and then, if the performance hadn’t been up to it, I could have put the same team back out again in the cup.
If the performance had been good, I could have rested a few for the next league game and then brought in a few lads who had missed out.
The squad isn’t complete yet, although it’s unlikely anyone will be coming through the door this week.
We still need, in my opinion, a little bit more firepower and possibly that was evident at Salford City last weekend.
We created loads of chances but didn’t take enough of them. We probably need something else in the middle of the park as well.
I hate losing and was really disappointed at the Peninsula Stadium when we went out in a penalty shoot-out, but maybe it is not the worst thing that could have happened.
We play Wycombe Wanderers this Saturday and then prepare for the Millwall home game. Do I really want a League Cup game in between? Possibly not.
If you have a good cup run, you could play seven games in September. Considering we have not played competitively for six months, it is a tall order. I am not devastated by the Salford result, although I still wish we had won.
I’ve been really pleased with our pre-season. It’s been strange to play all the friendlies behind closed doors but, in these times of Covid-19, I understand why.
It’s been nice for the new players to settle in without anyone making judgements on them. They’ve been able to play a few games and get used to how we play.
The games have gone really well and I’ve really enjoyed them. We’ve scored a lot of goals and should have scored even more. Our play has been good. We look fitter than last year, which really pleases me.
One thing is certain, though: the standard of opposition we play against from now on is going to be a lot higher.
My first season in the Championship, in 2016/17, ended in relegation. In the circumstances, with me taking over halfway through a doomed campaign, I didn’t blame myself.
We came straight back up, gave survival a right go in 2018/19 and fell just short. There was no shame and we could hold our heads up high, but I did blame myself and really felt that one because it was ‘my’ team.
We’ve come straight back up again and here we are ... a new season, a new start. I think we’re ready and I can’t wait.
THE kids are no longer at home all the time. I’ve got used to Covid-19 living and having them being around for the last six month and I’m going to miss them.
My daughter, Riley, has been there to look after the dog when me and my wife have been at work so her going back to school is a disaster! I had to pay my son Mack’s mate a tenner the other day to go round and walk the dog at dinner-time.
My daughter is back in the classroom. She needed to go back, bless her.
She’s been great company for me but she’s missed her friends.
Mack, is in the Millers Academy now and he’s been working for more than a month.
He’s earned a few quid and he’s buying clothes all over the place. It’s like Brewster’s Millions with him.
It’s sort of a bit of reality now, innit? A lot of people are back at work and the kids are back to school. Then we had our first proper game last weekend. It’s all come thick and fast.
FOOTBALL without fans isn’t the same. That goes without saying.
We need fans back in grounds as soon as possible. But only when it’s safe.
My opinion is that everyone is going to wait to see what happens with the schools and colleges and students going back.
If there is no backlash from that, it will probably allow the opportunity for fans to come back.
Everyone wants supporters back. Owners do, players do, the fans themselves do.
However, I don’t think we can be definitive about which way it will go yet.
THE coronavirus pandemic means I’ve lost my Saturday-night fix of going to watch Sheffield Steelers play ice hockey after our home games.
It is an absolute blow. I have a dog now and he is going to have to be my stress-relief. I’ll take him out for a walk on Saturday evenings to talk through my tactical errors.
I will have to get something else. I don’t want to fall down that slippery slope of cracking open a ‘tinnie’ as soon as I get home.
I need to keep active and am hopeful that ice hockey will come back soon, but I am not so sure.
I love American football and have always gone to the NFL games played in this country. Sadly, I have got an awful feeling that they’re not going to happen either, so I am going to be in a right old state.
I need something that I can lose myself in with my wife and kids. Ice hockey was perfect. I could eat a hot dog with American mustard on, have a lager shandy and have no cares in the world for a while.
Now everyone will be: ‘You can phone the gaffer now. He is not at Sheffield Arena.’ I might have to sponsor an ice-hockey team and get it going on a car-park or something.
OUR new pooch, Chief, is growing bigger every day. He’s getting on for six months old now.
He goes dog-training on a Monday night at Conisbrough. Not on his own, I hasten to add. I go with him.
A lady there the first week talked to me and said: ‘Are you the Rotherham manager?’
She had a Sheffield United shirt on so straightaway I had go down the politeness road and say: ‘Your assistant manager, Alan Knill, is one of my big friends. I really like the Blades.’
Then she told me her mum is a big Millers fan so we bonded quite nicely. It turned out that I’d sent her mum a video message for her birthday.
The other day, I got home after a hard day’s work, my missus had taken Chief out and he wasn’t there. I just wanted to lie down and let him lick my ears. I was devastated.
I still suspect he gets a lot of treats from my wife when I’m not there. I don’t think I am his number one.
He loves me, but he looks at Rach as if she’s a big cookie. He thinks if he goes to her side of the room snacks will be available whereas he sees me as the head of the pack but with no cookies.
He’s been great with his training. He can walk off his lead all the time and he comes back when you call him. Brilliant.
To be honest, he’s easier to train than one or two of my players are.