“Are you wi’ me?”
It’s a phrase Yorkshireman Neil Warnock uses a lot.
As the unbeaten games mounted for Rotherham United and the number of press conferences grew, it endearingly dotted his conversation more and more.
“Keeping us up would be my best achievement by a country mile. Have you seen who we’ve got coming up?” said the Millers boss early in his reign, before famous victories over Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Ipswich Town set the survival ball rolling. “Are you wi’ me? They’re all going for promotion.”
That reign is due to end after Saturday’s last-day finale at Hull City. Rotherham were odds on to be relegated before Warnock’s February arrival, but Championship safety was assured nearly a fortnight ago after a crazy, unforgettable 11-match undefeated run.
The manager dubbed ‘The Messiah’ for his Millers miracle plans one more year in football. How Rotherham hope it will be with them.
The job Warnock has done at AESSEAL New York Stadium along with his trusted coaches, Kevin Blackwell and Ronnie Jepson, has been such that the trio are likely to be in demand with bigger second-tier clubs than the Millers.
Outfits with loads more lolly and promotion prospects that would appeal to a man who has taken clubs up seven times in his career and would like to make it a record-breaking eight before his planned retirement in 2017.
But there are good reasons why he might just feel better staying where he is.
Warnock is a working-class hero. Forget the pampered prima donnas of the Premier League he’s worked with and disliked in the past, Our Neil warms to people who relish a challenge, people who roll up their sleeves and work together, people he wants to inspire and who are willing to be inspired.
Just like the Millers were when he answered chairman Tony Stewart’s SOS call.
Warnock’s heart is in Rotherham because Rotherham has heart.
The wins, thrillingly, remarkably, kept coming. “Down to 10 men and we still found the energy to do it in the last minute,” he said after Matt Derbyhire’s undeserved red card, Greg Halford’s late, late penalty and the 2-1 triumph over Leeds United in front of a New York full house. “I’m so proud. The lads are giving me everything. Are you wi’ me?”
Warnock found a chairman in Stewart he likes and trusts, a chairman who likes and trusts him in return. They play golf together. They dine out together. And the manager says he always works better with a good owner behind him.
Stewart, the businessman who saved the club from administration, the visionary who built New York, the strong, decent character who has always backed his man in the hot-seat, is a good owner.
At Rotherham, they understand Warnock needs to spend the early part of the week at his home in Cornwall where wife Sharon has been ill. At Rotherham, they’ll be happy to appoint him on a one-year deal.
Larger clubs could offer a faster route to the Premier League, but would want more of his time, both in terms of his working hours and the length of his contract.
And he might not fancy all the hassle that an institution like Aston Villa, for example, would entail. At 67, Warnock is old enough, successful enough and rich enough to suit himself and his family.
The Millers will offer him a reasonable amount to spend. Nothing like the figures at the top end of the division, obviously, but Stewart, bearing in mind the income Rotherham generate, delivers absolutely as much as he can on the budget. Plus, increased television money will swell the coffers by a few million.
Then there’s Mrs Warnock, much loved by Millers fans for having the courage to give her fella her blessing to take the job in February when her need for him was surely greater than Rotherham’s.
What’s that saying? Behind every good man, there is a good woman. A brave, selfless woman, in this case, who eased Warnock’s doubts about leaving her side.
In that lovely, humorous letter she sent earlier this week to supporters who bought her bouquets and raised money for her to give to charity she said how much she’d like to be able to thank them in person next season.
She will have her say again. And her hubby has already listened once.
Family matters to Warnock. Rotherham are a family club.
Eventually, the Millers’ undefeated run stretched to 11 matches and the Millers - who had been six points adrift of a safety spot three games into Warnock’s tenure - celebrated mission accomplished after a goalless draw at Molineux on April 23.
“It’s incredible what these lads have achieved,” the manager said. “At one stage, the bookies had us at 5/1 on to go down and they’re not normally wrong. Are you wi’ me? The lads have listened and done everything I’ve asked of them. As a manager, you can’t ask for more.”
The players want Warnock.
Matt Derbyshire is a former top-flight striker who has played in the Champions League. Warnock has turned him into a left-sided midfielder who has run so hard during the survival push he jokingly fears he might have to pack in playing next season!
The 30-year-old could have been speaking for any player in the first-team squad when he said: “What the gaffer has done is come in and said: ‘Right, lads, this is what we want. We don’t concede on this, we don’t do that.’
“Everyone knows exactly what we’re doing. He’s taken a lot of the pressure off the players and let us go out and enjoy our football and play. He’s up there with the best I’ve worked with.”
Stewart wants Warnock.
“I want to thank Neil and his staff for the job they have done since arriving at the club in February,” he said. “We weren’t in a great position at that time and it was certainly a challenging task to turn around our fortunes. That task was done and dusted with two games to go - a quite remarkable achievement. Huge praise has to be given to everyone involved, including the manager.”
The supporters want Warnock.
“I think Neil and his backroom team have been infectious for us, particularly in the dressing room,” said Dean Hall who writes a weekly Millers fan column in The Star. “Every fan knows we lack that bit of quality at this level in key areas, so it’s vital we galvanise team spirit and work ethic on and off the field - something Warnock’s methods provide in abundance.
“He’s ‘old school’ and gets the best out of what’s at his disposal, and that mentality suits us. Millers fans want to see 100 per cent commitment to the cause for 90 minutes.
“You can see a game-plan, every player knows their limits, their job on the pitch and what’s expected of them.”
And Warnock likes to feel wanted.
He was given a wonderful reception when he was a guest speaker at the home match with QPR in early January, an occasion which brought his first glimpse of New York and the first stirrings in him that these might just be surroundings he fancied.
His visit had been organised by his old pal and Millers playing legend, John Breckin, and Warnock, as a former manager of Sheffield United, was concerned enough to be checking with Breck in the days beforehand what kind of welcome he could expect.
Now, his standing in the town knows no bounds. In 15 games, he has become their leader, their talisman, one of them.
The man who began the season in charge at New York, Steve Evans, earned promotions from League Two and League One and kept the Millers up in their first year in the Championship. But not even he could generate the affection and unanimous support that the latest boss has managed in less than three months.
Evans achieved the improbable. Warnock has done the impossible.
Last Saturday’s Blackburn match said everything about the bond between the Millers and their survival saviour. With safety already in the bag, it was a home game which had nothing riding on it. Supporters still filled three sides of the ground and some of the away end.
To Mrs W, they said it with flowers. To Mr W, they said it in numbers.
An announcement on whether he stays is expected next week.
There are no guarantees, and Warnock’s head may yet be turned by an offer from elsewhere that he feels he can’t refuse. But he is a man who often follows his instinct, and his gut tells him Rotherham is a great place to work.
He describes himself as being “a nutter” for once turning down Chelsea in favour of Notts County. Yet it was a decision he felt happy with.
Now he has another to make.
I speak for all those fans at New York last weekend, and anyone else who takes pride in the town, when I say the following ...
“Neil, thank you for the most amazing turnaround in Millers history. We would understand if you left, but we don’t want you to. Talk to Sharon. Listen to Rotherham. Please stay. Are you wi’ me?”