Why Rotherham United's players won't be called in for training on Christmas Day

Why Rotherham United's players won't be called in for training on Christmas Day

By Paul Davis | 23/12/2019

Why Rotherham United's players won't be called in for training on Christmas Day
Paul Warne

IT was Christmas Day and Paul Warne was steaming.

Not drunk. He hadn't raided the Yuletide drinks cabinet.

Furious.

Warne, the manager of Rotherham United, was a player with Oldham Athletic at the time.

December 25 arrived but there was little festive cheer as the Latics squad had been summoned together.

“I had it one year where I drove over to Oldham and trained,” Warne recalls. “I remember it took me an hour and a half to get there and I had two young kids at home.

“I know loads of people work on Christmas Day so I apologise, but I went in and the manager shook my hand and said: 'Merry Christmas. Don't worry about it, we are doing only 20 minutes.'

“I was raging. I was thinking: 'I have travelled an hour and a half for this ... for 20 minutes'.”

It's a rare bad Christmas memory for an attacker who turned out for five clubs, including the Millers, in a 15-year pro career and who used to relish the hectic fixture schedule that Santa brings yearly in his sack.

“As a player, there were more times when we didn't train than we did train,” he says.

“But because I was such a goody two shoes, I went for a run with Richie Barker (now Rotherham assistant manager) every Christmas morning, ate well, didn't touch alcohol, had an afternoon sleep, drank loads of water and went to bed early.

“I never worried as a player at Christmas because I always thought I'd be better than the other team's centre-half. I'd think: 'There's no way he's not had too much turkey.' Centre-halves are 'porkers', aren't they!

“I used to think: 'There is no way he will be in better shape than me.' So I loved Christmas as a player. I loved having games coming thick and fast as it suited my athleticism.

“Of my centre-halves, Icky (Michael Ihiekwe) probably doesn't go too hard on the turkey but I bet Robbo (Clark Robertson) loves a slice. And Woody (Richard Wood) definitely loves an extra slice.”

Turkey-lover Richard Wood

This Christmas is Warne's fourth as Rotherham boss and he has more on his mind these days than when his major headache was whether he could beat Barker to the top of the hill in Herringthorpe Valley Park.

The Millers are at home to Fleetwood Town tomorrow before a Boxing Day trip to Shrewsbury and games at AESSEAL New Year Stadium against Peterborough United and Blackpool in quickfire succession: four matches in just 11 days.

“Managing is a lot more stressful than playing, particularly at this time of year,” he says. “As a manager, I have to worry about more than 20 players. And I can't see what they're doing.”

He's likely to give his squad December 25 off, as he has done ever since he took the hot-seat in 2016.

He reveals: “Historically, I don't believe in Christmas Day training, although it took me a while to decide this year as last year the players were off and we were disgusting on Boxing Day.

“We lost 2-1 at Bolton. But that was my fault. I played 4-4-2 and never should have, so I blame myself. The year before, we won 3-0 at Bury.”

The year before that brought a 3-2 New York triumph over Wigan Athletic.

“On Christmas Day, I normally get all the lads to send in a WhatsApp clip of them out running,” he adds. “I still go out for a run because I always have.

“They can do it in fancy dress or whatever they like and can just have a day with their families really.

“Realistically, if for that one day they don't train it does not have a big effect. And I think happy and motivated players are the best sort to have.

“They know if they don't train on Christmas Day that they owe me on Boxing Day. That's the deal they do with the devil.”

All this talk is stoking up Warne's Oldham anger of well over a decade ago.

“It was another hour and a half back and a four-hour day for 20 minutes,” he objects. “I could have taken my dogs out for a run and done more exercise than that.”

He's never forgotten how he felt that day and is loath to put his own players through it, having faith in them to resist all the turkey-and-trimmings temptations while they're out of sight.

“I could get them in on Christmas Day but it will be like 'Wacky Races' if I do,” he grins.

“As soon as training finishes, oddly enough no-one will need a shower and they will just run straight through our building at Roundwood and get in their cars.

“They will all have reversed their cars into their parking spaces so they are heading in the right direction when they leave.

“The other thing is, if you get them in on Christmas Day and someone wants to spend their Christmas Day in, let's say, York, they will just race up here to train.

“It's not a health and safety thing but I sometimes just think 'Have the day with the family and then you owe me big time'.

“It is an amazing time. But not amazing enough for us to neglect our league season.

“There is no-one here who I don't trust. I try to sign players I have full trust in. That is why I harp on about characters all the time.”

He cites the amazing late FA Cup comeback from 3-0 down to 4-3 winners at Solihull Moors earlier this month to underline his point: “We won the game through the character of the team not through ability. We had a real belief.”

To combat the extra strain of a packed schedule, the workload at Roundwood has been slightly reduced.

“We turn down the training a little bit,” Warne reveals. “Every player has GPS now so we can check their loadings.

“We try to see if there are traits between our Saturday and Tuesday games and which players can handle the distances more than others.

“We tweak the training wherever we can. We will just curb their training a little bit and give them more recovery strategies.

In matches, though, there is no let-up: “We have to attack every game like we do the rest of the season.”

A welcome present for the manager will be the return to fitness of two-slice skipper Wood who is on course to be available for the Shrews contest.

Rotherham have missed his organisation and leadership and his dressing-room presence will be a boost whether he starts or is on the bench.

“The really difficult thing over Christmas is if you have an injury to one of your key players, especially at the back,” Warne says.

“When there is a game three days later and four days after that, you have very little time to get a player right again. It's a very quick turnaround.

“You have to try to keep your players fit, healthy and happy through December.”

Meanwhile, Oldham, all those years Christmas past, won't go away.

“Literally, it was a jog and a stretch and a little five-a-side jolly-up,” he moans. “Then we got in our cars and went home. It was absolutely pointless.

“I try to treat my lads as humanely as I can, especially the ones with young kids.

“I think, with it being Shrewsbury away this year, we will probably meet up on Boxing Day morning, have the pre-match and the meeting and then travel across.”

Christmas Day training. Pointless.

In return for being with their families, Warne's players have to make sure their festive period is anything but.