The bonds of Benidorm ... what Paul Warne hopes has been forged in the Rotherham United dressing room in the heat of a relegation battle

By Paul Davis | 15/05/2019

The bonds of Benidorm ... what Paul Warne hopes has been forged in the Rotherham United dressing room in the heat of a relegation battle
Paul Warne

IT'S well over a decade since they were teammates.

But this week a bunch of former Rotherham United players headed off on holiday together.

A couple of the present managerial staff, assistant boss Richie Barker and goalkeeper coach Mike Pollitt, were among those jetting out to the continent for a few days of sun, sand, sea and sangria.

Also Benidorm-bound were Guy Branston, Chris Sedgwick and Andy Monkhouse.

The five of them donned the red and white shirt in the old Division One days of Ronnie Moore in the early noughties.

Pals then, still pals now. Once a Miller, always a Miller.

“Richie's off with Branno, Sedgy, Polly and Monks,” said manager Paul Warne, another member of Ronnie's rogues who punched above their weight in the second tier for four consecutive seasons.

“They haven't played together for 15 years but the bonds they forged when they were in the same side are still there today.”

Rotherham's Championship campaign under Warne has just ended. It culminated in the drop, although this wasn't your usual insipid relegation.

The class of 2018/19 went down fighting, scaring bigger teams, going toe to toe with everything the division could throw at them before their fate was sealed by an undeserved defeat at West Bromwich Albion on April 27.

A lost nine-month battle, even one as brave as this, doesn't sit well with the boss.

“If you give everything and it is not enough, it is hard to take,” he says. “It's a bit like taking an A-level exam: if you haven't studied and you fail ... well, it's what you expected and it doesn't bother you so much. If you have given everything you can and fail, it is harder to take.

“It is testament to how professional the lads have been this season that relegation does hurt so much. They have given everything and outperformed some amazing teams at times.

“A couple of managers have texted me saying that we have exceeded everyone's expectations and that we have got to be proud of what we have done. And I am, I am hugely proud. But that pride is tinged with disappointment.”

What eases the heartache is the hope that he has fostered the same friendships that see Barker and company sharing sunbeds so long after first sharing their lives.

“That's what I want in my group of players,” he says. “There are a few of the lads out of contract who want to stay and mainly that is because their best mates are in the dressing room.

“When I took over, I tried to create a group who would get on. I wanted a group that would run their own dressing room rather than it being down to the staff.

“The lads really do get on and I want them to stay at the club for a long period of time. I don't want to slash the team apart every summer. We have a set of 'cojonas'. I like that.”

Warne is Norwich-born yet Rotherham through and through and, after more than two years in the hot-seat, doesn't want to be anywhere other than AESSEAL New York Stadium.

He won promotion from League One in his first full season and has enhanced his reputation by keeping his side so competitive at the level above.

“I am amazingly proud to be manager of this club,” he says. “I am hopeful that I will be the manager next season.

“In my opinion, in the last two years the training environment and the atmosphere behind the scenes at the club have got much better. Everyone gets on with each other.

“I think the team have done well this season even though we've gone down. I hope the fans can see the bigger picture. They have been brilliant with the players.

“I like to think most people understand the size of our club and what we're trying to do. We couldn't have worked any harder. We might have been able to work better but not harder.

“I have done everything I can and I don't regret any decision I've made, any substitution I made.

“With hindsight and reflection, you can go: 'Well, maybe I should have done that.' But hindsight's an unbelievable thing, innit? I'd be the England manager if I had that skill in the moment I was making decisions. At the time, I always felt what I was doing was the right thing.”

Warne lost games but never his humour, even though the quest for survival was being conducted against the harrowing family backdrop of watching his dad suffer with an illness from which he won't recover.

He broke only once, in the emotional aftermath of the West Brom game, when, with his father swirling through his mind, his voice faltered as he described his players as “the sunshine to my soul”.

Other than that, he's smiled through the professional and personal pain.

Richie Barker

“Rich doesn't drink much,” he grins, suddenly flitting back to the Benidorm beano, his eyes glinting with a combination of ill-concealed mirth and pretend concern. “Branno and Polly are monsters. They're going to make mincemeat of him.”

A season of whiteboard messages, of family videos, of speeches, of George Michael songs, of always looking for an extra, innovative way to motivate his squad, has taken its toll and the manager is ready for a holiday of his own.

“I'm still feeling very mixed emotions,” he confesses. “There's sadness and frustration that we fell just short and deep satisfaction in how far the group have come.

“There weren't many games where we under-performed. To pick the lads up for that many cup finals has taken a lot out of everyone, the players and the staff. I think we're all exhausted.

“Everyone is looking forward to a break, especially after last year (League One Play-off Final) when the players had only four weeks off in the summer. The staff were recruiting and sorting out the training ground so we had even less: probably only ten days or so.

“We have literally given everything we have. We could have been a little bit luckier. I don't think we could have been a lot better.

“I'm full of pride in the group but it's tinged with a feeling of 'what could have been'.”

A trip to the pub, surprisingly with low-alcohol Barker in tow, brought home how close the Millers had come to pulling off a feat that virtually every pre-season tipster had said was impossible.

“The other week, we went to watch the Barcelona v Liverpool game in my local boozer because I'm too tight to pay for BT Sport,” Warne says.

“I had a Leeds United fan talk to me and he said: 'You've done a brilliant job this year.' He'd watched our game at Elland Road and the one at our place and said we could have got something from both of them. That's how competitive we've been.

“All the other times I've been involved in a relegation we have been outclassed. When I went down from the Championship as a player, it was like we were hanging on for dear life in every game.

“It didn't feel like that this year. We were always trying to win and we always scored goals, which was good. We always conceded them as well. I accept that. That was the downside.

“This is an extreme example, but Liverpool were excellent in Barcelona. I don't think they could have played any better and they still lost 3-0.

“They didn't take their chances when they had them and then Barca have got Lionel Messi who can do something out of nothing.

“It was a little bit like when we played Aston Villa at home. We couldn't have played a lot better but they had Jack Grealish who is much better — and that is no disrespect to any of my players — than anyone we have got.

“Sometimes, you have to accept that the opposition have got players who can do things to you.

“I've got no shame. I can look any Rotherham fan in the eye and say: 'Look, we gave all that we could.'”

This summer will see Warne complete his UEFA A Licence coaching qualification in Belfast and cram in a couple of holidays with his missus and kids, but already his thoughts are turning to League One and August 3 opening day

“The division is going to have four or five big-hitters,” he says. “It is not going to be easy, anything but. But it will be nicer for my sleep on a Friday night with some of the teams we are playing.

“We have a much better platform than we did two years ago when we were last relegated from the Championship, although it probably brings a bit more pressure.

“We're already talking to agents and they're saying: 'Well, I think you'll be right up there next season.' That brings more expectation, but I don't think that's a bad thing.

“The majority of the lads we keep, now that they've worked with us for two years, get exactly what we want. So when the next group come in — say we sign seven players in the summer — it will be easier to police them because the other 18 will sort of look after them and say: 'Don't do that, the gaffer won't like that.'

“I think in the summer it will be easier to get our messages across.

“It's not like we're coming out of last season depressed. I'm coming out of it with a big smile on my face. I don't think there will be a hangover from relegation so hopefully we can start the season well. If we can average two points a game, I will be a very happy man.”

In the meantime, Barker and his band are on the eastern coast of Spain: Levante Beach and Poniente Beach, best of buddies, bars and booze.

The manager isn't there, the lack of invitation the curse of being the man in charge. “I can't go because I am like the fun-sponge,” he laments. “Who wants to go away with their boss?”

He consoles himself with the thought that, in 15 years, Semi Ajayi, Will Vaulks, Joe Mattock, Jon Taylor and Michael Smith might be the Benidorm boys of 2034.

Content to miss out on the sunshine of Spain as long as he can nurture men who are the sunshine to his soul.

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WARNE'S HIGHS AND LOWS OF 2018/19

“The biggest high for me, I think, was our performance at Hull City when we came back from 2-0 down at half-time to draw 2-2. I think that one cheered me up the most.

“Hull had an unbelievable home record going into the game. We'd played three at the back at Millwall in the match before and it gave us success. We kept the same system at Hull and it didn't give us success at all.

“We made substitutions at half-time and we tried to rally the troops. The fact that the lads reacted the way that they did and played so well in the second half was sort of empowering. At one stage it looked like we were completely out of the game. In the end, I was disappointed we didn't win.

“Stoke City away was another highlight. Again, we came back from a 2-0 deficit to take a point and we definitely deserved to win. I really enjoyed that game.

“I enjoyed quite a lot of away games, which is odd considering that we won only one. Semi Ajayi scoring a last-second winner at QPR is right up there! That was something pretty awesome.

Semi Ajayi

“Jamie Proctor's goal in the dying seconds at AESSEAL New York Stadium to get us a draw against Sheffield United was a special moment too, even though we'd played unbelievably well and actually deserved to win the match.

“It just seemed very Rotherham-esque; in the words of Mike Pollitt, very Disney-like. We didn't have a lot of luck in that game, then two of their players slipped, there was a deflection, it fell to my substitute centre-forward ten yards out and he scored with his first touch. Everything felt right about it: Proc's connection, the fact it was in front of our kop. It was unreal.

“Our home performances always looked after themselves really, although it was always edgy, even when we won. We knew how to make life difficult for ourselves!

“The biggest disappointment was the last-gasp equaliser that Sheffield Wednesday scored at our place. That was pretty brutal.

“Brentford at home was another negative. It was 4-2 to them and could have been 10-2.

“Brentford are like my kryptonite. We lost heavily at their place on opening day. Loads of other teams play like them, most teams play out from the back like them, other teams have five in midfield like them but, for whatever reason, we just couldn't get to grips with them.

“I can accept losing, but in that match we were outfought and out-thought, which was very rare for us last season.”

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THE CHAMPIONSHIP? I'D DO IT ALL AGAIN

PAUL Warne is still licking his wounds after relegation from the Championship but the Rotherham United manager would happily endure the heartache all over again.

The boss appreciates how tough it is for a small club like the Millers to thrive in the second tier yet he'd relish another attempt at the challenge.

“It is funny when I hear people say: 'Well, if there was just an extra couple of million pounds.' You are talking about ten, 20 and 50 million,” he says.

“However, if you offered me promotion back to the Championship this time next year and told me we'd have exactly the same experience, I would 100 per cent take it.

“It is a great feeling taking your team to the likes of Swansea City, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest and watching your team play in places like that.”

Rotherham took last season's survival fight to the penultimate week of the campaign and the boss has learned plenty from nine months of testing himself against far bigger sides.

“We are definitely more experienced,” he says. “I know how difficult the Championship is and that there are games where you under-perform.

“Nearly every team has three games per season where you think: 'Oh, my God, what has happened there?' Hardly any side goes through the season without any errors.

“But, taking away those three or four performances, I don't think we have had many games where we have not really gone head to head with the best teams.

“I remember losing at home to Norwich City and Leeds United. Those defeats were nothing like the ones the last time we were in the Championship two years ago when we literally did not get in their half.

“I think we have tried to play in a way that the fans want to see here. They want to see shots, crosses and effort. I think my lads have definitely given them that.

“Unfortunately, with the way we play, we have conceded too many goals. We could have played a different way where we never score or create anything and get 0-0 draws. That is not me or how I want to manage.”

Warne reckons it is growing ever harder to go up from League One and then make an impact a division higher.

“I think the gap between League One and the Championship is massive,” he says. “Wigan Athletic came up, spent whatever they did last  summer and are an ex-Premier League club who still found it difficult.

“The gap is getting bigger and the romance of the pyramid system is not what it was, if I am honest.

“No disrespect to, say, Port Vale, but I cannot see them getting to the Premier League unless some Russian billionaire takes over. Even if they got promoted once, to go up again and then compete in an even higher league is impossible without an unbelievable amount of money.

“I think that the Championship is actually more competitive than the Premier League. Wigan won 2-1 at Leeds United with ten men last season, but there is no way on this earth that Cardiff City would have done that to Manchester City in the top flight. There is just no chance as the void in that league is monstrous.

“The Championship gets viewed around the world and gets people excited because no-one will correctly predict all 12 results on a Saturday. Anyone can beat anyone and everyone is flat out.

“Everyone is trying to win and there are no teams who are happy with getting a point away from home.

“It is an amazing league.”

These articles first appeared in the Advertiser


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