Feature: Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart on his OBE, manager Paul Warne and the Championship

IT started out like any other routine night in the Stewart household.
Tony Stewart with the Advertiser's Paul DavisTony Stewart with the Advertiser's Paul Davis
Tony Stewart with the Advertiser's Paul Davis

Tony and Joan had dined together at their Moorgate home and now the chairman of Rotherham United and owner of ASD Lighting was about to relax in front of the television.

Joan handed her husband an envelope. The letter was light yellow in colour, the opening words heavy in meaning. This was Cabinet Office correspondence. Suddenly, routine was no longer on the menu.

The Prime Minister has asked me to inform you in strict confidence that, having accepted the advice of the Main Honours Committee, she is recommending that Her Majesty The Queen may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire.

“I almost fell off my chair,” recalls Stewart.

“I left work on a Thursday evening and got home around 6.20pm. My good wife had the table made and we had a lovely meal together.

“I was heading for the lounge and she said: 'Just a minute. Can you sit down?' She said it in such a way that I thought: 'Eyup, something's gone wrong here.'

Tony Stewart at ASD Lighting

“She gave me the envelope, which she'd already opened. I couldn't believe it when I read what was inside.”

Stewart will receive his gong for services to business and to the community of Rotherham.

He more than anyone — by saving the football club from the brink of extinction, by building AESSEAL New York Stadium, by leading a Parkgate-based business he describes as one of the manufacturing powerhouses of Europe — is responsible for the regeneration of the town.

We're sat in the large ASD office he shares with son Richard. His desk is about the size of the New York pitch, his golf clubs take up a corner of the room and expensive original artwork adorns the walls.

The atmosphere is jovial and warm, as I knew it would be. Stewart, his demeanour as bright as his yellow tie and red handkerchief, is always generous with his welcome and his time.

We're both cradling mugs of tea as his e-mail alert constantly pings in the background and he light-heartedly muses about which member of the royal family might officially bestow his honour upon him in March.

Before then, he has a Championship campaign to concern him as he and Paul Warne, the fitness coach who became Rotherham first-team manager in 2017, look to establish a foothold in the division following last season's promotion.

“Paul has been here all through my ten years in charge so he is no stranger to me,” says Stewart, who estimates his commitment to the Millers has taken £55 million of his personal fortune.

“All the managers he worked under never said a bad word about him. In fact, they threw bouquets around about his dedication.

“Management is a different role and it has become more and more transparent that he has the attributes required to do the job successfully.”

The book in reception that every visitor to ASD has to sign tells me that Warne has already been there on the same afternoon as me.

“We speak virtually daily and I enjoy our conversations,” Stewart says. “They are to the point, they are about football, they are about what's happening on the training ground. I get to know what makes him tick and how he feels.

“Paul knows his chairman is happy with what he's doing and the relationship works for both of us. There is transparency both ways. I don't think I could ever fall out with him. We work very well together.

“Like me, he takes the losses on board, then picks himself up and wants to go forward. You have got to be a leader of men. It's not just about what you feel like, it's about how the players feel. The players are the star turn.

“Having had nine managers before, I can say that Paul is the most intelligent, the most attentive and has the best way of getting information over to me.”

Talk turns again to the award and Stewart's appointment at Buckingham Palace on Thursday March 14, 9.45am prompt.

The New Year's Honours list was unveiled on December 29 and it was 2019 by the time the tycoon, now approaching his mid-70s, had managed to catch up with all the well-wishers.

“I had congratulations from people I hadn't seen in 20 or 30 years,” he says. “It was incredible. Fans congratulated me, so did directors from other football clubs. There were people from all walks of life.

“Rotherham people have been fantastic with me. My relationship with fans has really endured.

“It took me three days to reply to all the messages because a lot of them came by text. Some really distinguished people contacted me.

“You have to give credit to the people who surround you. They are part of the jewels that give you the success that you're aiming for. As I have developed, so have the people around me. Just like in football, it's been a team game.

“I'm looking forward to March because it will be special for the people I take there. Close family will go down with me. I can see us getting a nice hotel and having a meal and a bit of a celebration.”

Tony Stewart OBE.

Warne was one of the first to make contact after the official announcement. A month had passed since the night of the opened envelope but some of Stewart's inner circle had been in on the secret for much longer.

“It was only when I came to work the day after I found out that I realised a director, Julie, who also works as my PA and really looks after me, already knew about it,” the businessman smiles. “I told her in confidence and she laughed.”

Julie, his three brothers and two sisters were among the select few he confided in.

“As it unfolded,” he adds, talking about the situation, not the Cabinet Office letter, “Behind the scenes certain people had been writing letters and supplying answers on my behalf in the strictest confidence. My son was involved as well!

“They did a fantastic job in keeping it quiet. They put statements in and answered questions. It all went to a vetting committee.”

The Millers are away to Queens Park Rangers the night before the palace ceremony. For once, Stewart's mind might be on matters other then the Millers, but the club are never far from his thoughts

Warne's men are  exceeding expectations and, as the closing stages of the January transfer window approach, remain above the bottom three.

“In the second half of the season, I want to see us get better,” Stewart says. “I don't want to end this season by just managing to stay up in the last game.

“I'm as committed as ever. I'm a custodian of the club. I've got a responsibility to make sure the club is here for the duration.

“My responsibility is to make sure we're fit for the season and to support the manager because he picks the players. I've never picked a player yet.

“My role is to make sure the manager gets everything he wants to make sure that we can compete at whatever level we are at.

“We are recruiting. I don't know if it will be two, three ... I leave that to the manager. Because of our recruitment structure, we have options. I like that.

“There are no knee-jerk decisions. Everything is thought through. Preparation is done. It's not just about the talent of the player, it's also about them fitting in with our culture, slotting into the Millers jigsaw.

“Paul and his staff work hard to achieve that. The manager is optimistic. The players we had in League One have adjusted. We'll give it our best effort to not only maintain our Championship status but make progress up the table this season and in future seasons.”

Staying up would be momentous. Much like that routine evening in Moorgate turned out to be. Stewart remembers every little detail.

“My wife had cooked fish and chips,” he says. “She knows I like fish. The news was on the TV in the background.

“Afterwards I had a chocolate biscuit and a cup of tea.

“It was all a bit surreal when I read the letter. I think my mum and dad would be proud if they were still alive. I felt shocked, flattered, humbled.”

Tony Stewart, for services to business and the community of Rotherham.

Tony Stewart OBE.

Overwhelmed Biscuit Eater.

This feature first appeared in last week's Advertiser