PAUL Warne’s phone rang and suddenly the Rotherham United manager was keen to rush off.
He was on a Zoom call with journalists, a pre-match press conference the Thursday afternoon before Swansea City were due in town last month.
Normally, once the questions are over, the Millers boss is happy to stay online and hang around for an off-the-record chat.
Not this time.
“It’s the manager of someone I’m trying to sign,” he said. “I need to ring him back pronto.”
The boss was Middlesbrough’s Neil Warnock. The player was Lewis Wing.
For the first part of the January transfer window, Rotherham had been seeking to bring in a centre-forward but the ones they really wanted weren’t in their price range on either permanent or loan deals.
With Michael Smith and Matt Crooks stepping up to provide the goals that had been lacking, Warne was able to switch his focus.
Attacking midfielder Wing duly went on to join the Millers’ fight for Championship survival on loan.
While the striker hunt was still active, Rotherham explored the possibility of bringing in Matt Smith or Tom Bradshaw from Millwall. Each player was on decent money and the London club wanted all of their wages covering. Smith didn’t fancy it anyway.
Despite his age, Billy Sharp would have been an almost guarantee of goals in the second tier. There was contact between the Millers and Sheffield United but the message from the Blades was that the frontman who turned 35 last Friday was still needed in the Premier League.
Jayden Stockley had been prolific in the lower leagues before stalling at Preston North End. Could he do it in the Championship? Rotherham weren’t in a position to take a risk. They had to know an incoming would improve them.
The fact that there were no other second-tier takers and the former Exeter City hot-shot eventually moved to League One Charlton Athletic suggests the Millers were right not to proceed.
A potential move to AESSEAL New York Stadium for free agent Armand Gnanduillet received more publicity than it merited. He was linked to several clubs — much of it agent-led — but was never seriously in the Millers’ thinking.
Charlie Wyke was earning more money at League One Sunderland than Warne could match.
Wing was the second and final arrival of the transfer window, following the loan capture earlier in January of wing-back Ryan Giles from Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The Millers, deprived of full-back Joe Mattock’s service until at least the middle of March, were always going to strengthen their left flank.
Warne went into the New Year hoping for a ‘Disney’ outcome of up to four signings. He had to settle for two. But two very good ones.
Tony Stewart had said money was available for the right target. In the end, with Rotherham’s chosen ones out of reach, the owner, in a time of financial uncertainty that has affected clubs everywhere, was prepared to spend but prudently kept his hand in his pocket.
Essentially, Warne made January cost-neutral, freeing up cash on the wage bill by letting six players leave and committing the savings he’d generated to the salaries of two new loan boys of proven Championship standard.
Meanwhile, Warnock’s call on January 28 was warmly welcomed by the Millers boss.
The pair have an endearing, enduring relationship dating back to the time the veteran manager unforgettably guided Rotherham to second-tier survival and the younger man was fitness coach at New York.
Warne still calls Warnock ‘Gaffer’ and Warnock refers to Warne as ‘Son’.
Not for the first time in his managerial career, Warne discovered that his decency and reputation for treating people well was working in his favour.
He’d been a valuable, trusted ally of Warnock’s at Rotherham and the Boro boss was keen to do him a favour. The 72-year-old would see what he could do.
Josh Benson, a young prospect at Burnley would have been the midfielder the Millers moved for next if Warnock hadn’t been able to deliver on his good intentions.
Wing has looked the real deal so far while Giles has shown a turbo-charged capability to punch holes in opposition defences.
Warne had been tracking the Wolves youngster for a couple of years and there was no-one he wanted more once he heard that the Black Country flyer’s spell at Coventry City was being cut short.
Until then, Hayden Coulson, a 22-year-old left-footer making his way at Boro, had been of interest.
Oxford United’s Jordan Obita, who eventually went to Championship bottom club Wycombe Wanderers, was also checked out but didn’t quite have enough to convince the Millers he would markedly improve them.
Adding a defender wasn’t a priority. Warne is an admirer of Stoke City’s Liam Lindsay, now on loan with Preston, but there was never any likelihood that the centre-half would be wearing red and white for the second half of the season.
The manager, normally such a lover of a winger, no longer looked for one as he had two of his own — Chiedozie Ogbene and Kieran Sadlier — coming back from injuries and the new 3-5-1-1 formation that was working so well required wing-backs rather than out-and-out wide men.
In different circumstances, the Millers might have fancied Southampton’s Josh Simms but on this occasion made no attempt to challenge League One Doncaster Rovers for his loan signature.
Defender Adam Thompson left permanently for Leyton Orient and of the five loan departures three are gone for good. The contracts of strikers Kyle Vassell and Jamie Proctor and right-back Billy Jones expire in the summer and there will be no offers of new ones.
Winger Mickel Miller could come back from Northampton Town to stake his claim for a first-team jersey, although he might have more chance if Rotherham drop a division, and who knows what will happen with Curtis Tilt.
The centre-half has more than two years left on his deal but his time in South Yorkshire hasn’t worked out as either he or the club would have liked and there is every chance of a parting of the ways.
So, two in and six out with the books pretty much balanced; Rotherham dropping in numbers but going up in quality.
Derby County showed a deadline-day desire to add Freddie Ladapo to their ranks but the Millers were never going to allow a survival rival to take their striker.
There were no enquiries about another centre-forward, Smith, who is in the scoring form of his life, and that left Warne surprised but delighted. When Smudge is good so are Rotherham.
The Millers aren’t ruling out a free-agent arrival but a deal is unlikely and the more days that pass without a signing the less chance there is of one happening.
“I am not actively looking, I am just not closed to it,” Warne said. “If something came in front if me that I thought would really improve us then I would do it.”
Four days after Warnock’s press-conference interruption came another call between the two bosses, one that made Rotherham’s window, considering Warne had done it without calling on his chairman for cash, an excellent one.
“Can we have him, Gaffer?” “Yes, Son.”
PAUL WARNE'S VIEW ON THE WINDOW
“The recruitment team put loads of work in. At the time of the window opening, we were second bottom which doesn’t help you attract players. Players would prefer to join a club higher in the table.
“Not many players moved early in the window. Most moved later on. Teams kept hold of their players until really late. Neil Warnock at Middlesbrough gets players in and out really well and even he didn’t make hardly any of his signings until the last day.
“At the start of the window, I wasn’t averse to signing anyone in any position. We needed extra goals but we also needed extra clean sheets and better set-pieces. We were open to anything.
“With Joe Mattock being out for a long time, signing a left wing-back was imperative.
“Before the window, we’d gone to a 3-5-1-1 system. That’s driven by legs in the middle of the park so another midfielder was vital as well.
“Any striker that was better than the strikeforce we already have was just completely unaffordable. We had a few targets but we could never match the parent clubs’ demands.
“We had opportunities to purchase a couple of strikers but they would have been ‘projects’ and this just wasn’t a window for projects.
“To get Wingy was a right result. We’ve liked him for years. We’ve always liked Ryan as well.
“We had room to strengthen the squad further but there wasn’t anyone better than we already had who was affordable.
“This window has been unique, with the circumstances of coronavirus making it the hardest one ever.
“I still would have liked at least one more body.
“The lads who I let go, there was no point keeping them here if they weren’t going to play a part.
“I had opportunities to let another couple go but I think they will play a part for us.”
TONY STEWART'S VIEW ON JANUARY
“I am pleased with the business we have done in January. The culture we have at Rotherham now means you have got directors, the manager and the recruitment team singing from the same hymn sheet. It’s all in harmony. Everybody knows what everybody else is thinking, which is good.
“I think that not just in this window but in the summer one as well the recruitment has been superb. A lot of preparation goes into it.
“It’s early days but I like the two lads we’ve just got in on loan.
“Leading up to the window, we weren’t scoring goals. I said: ‘If you want to step out and get a striker then do it.’ Paul (Warne) said: ‘We need to get one who is better than what we’ve already got.’
“Then we started to play Smith and Crooks together up front and it worked really well. As we were planning for a striker a few weeks ago, the goals started to come.
“I’ve always let managers manage here. I don’t tell them who to buy and who not to buy and I don’t pick a team.
“I believe it’s starting to come right this season and hopefully we carry on doing what we’re doing.
“We are now competing at this level rather than holding on. We seem to be comfortable now playing teams in the Championship.
“We’re not out of step, we’re in step. That’s so refreshing. If we’re right on our game, we’re capable of taking points from any team.”