On a thrilling, festive day when Rotherham United turned back time, Paul Warne got his message across.
In every single case.
Before the Championship clash with QPR, the interim manager had left a little something in the locker of every player in the starting 11 as, in only his second match in charge, he tried to arrest a run of 15 matches without a win.
“I texted them all the night before and said: ‘Congratulations, you have made it into the Warne dream team,’” he revealed.
“Then we put things in the 11 lads’ lockers. There was a picture of them and a few key points of what I wanted them to do.”
Each missive ended with the line: ‘Be proud to play for Rotherham.’
The response was by far the most uplifting display of the Millers’ tough season as the bottom club made light of their league position with a performance full of passion and vigour. This was the Rotherham United of the past four years. They should have won by more.
Warne had given French-speaking Tunisia international Aimen Belaid his first action since January. Like every other player, the centre-half stepped up.
The fitness coach and his son had been on Google Translate to give Belaid’s dressing-room directive the personal touch.
“I did Belaid’s in French to show a bit of respect,” Warne grinned. “The only thing that was right was ‘Vive la France’.
“Before the game, Bel says to me: ‘Warney, I don’t know what this means.’ I said: ‘What do you mean? It’s in French.’ He said: ‘It doesn’t mean anything!’”
But the collective will of Warne and his men meant something, and one beautiful, match-winning fact wasn’t lost in translation.
They were all proud to play for Rotherham.
As Team Rotherham won, Team Warne celebrated.
The caretaker manager was engulfed by his backroom staff in the technical area as they shared a moment of victory not experienced since the August 20 triumph over Brentford.
But this was about more than a single win. This was about revitalising and giving back a club damaged by the previous regimes of Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett its identity.
Warne finally managed to break free and embraced his captain, Lee Frecklington. In the meantime, kitman Andy Willert bounced up and down, swapping hugs like he’d just scored a last-minute winner at Wembley.
“They are buzzing like we have won a cup final,” Warne said. “They are good people, they are good men. I don’t want big-time footballers, even if they are talented. I don’t want nasty people. I want good, proper, football players and this club is full of them.”
The crowd, brilliant throughout a pulsating second half, were as loud as they have been in 2016. Belaid picked up the man who had given him his chance and joyously carried him around. After applauding fans, Warne let out a guttural scream as he left the pitch, the release of a fortnight of pressure and emotion since being asked to take over from Jackett.
Bear hugs, lion roars and players who fought like dogs of war.
Victory was made that bit sweeter by the fact that it came against a team managed by Ian Holloway who in a previous life as a Sky Sports pundit had spent much of his time tipping Millers defeats.
“C’est la vie, Ollie,” as Warne might have tried to say to Belaid.
Defenders defended, attackers attacked and the Millers midfield men pressed and harried QPR to distraction.
Rotherham peppered their unstinting effort with touches of quality, none better than Danny Ward’s 24th-minute pass which played in Izzy Brown to run in on goal and smartly finish past Alex Smithies.
“I said to them before they went out: ‘Don’t be that guy who lets the team down’,” Warne said. “’Don’t be that guy that comes in and apologises to his teammates for not running that extra yard.’”
Before the break Lewis Price had produced outstanding saves to deny Conor Washington and Tjarron Chery, and he matched them with a flying 54th-minute tip-over as Chery fired in a fierce, long-range free-kick.
But Frecklington and Ward had gone close in the first half for the home side and the second period saw the Millers gain the upper hand. A Frecklington header was saved, Ward fired just wide from a tight angle and Joe Newell was denied by Smithies before Richard Wood’s header was cleared off the line.
Newell couldn’t miss, could he, when Ward’s 81st-minute shot crashed back off the woodwork and fell to him in front of an open goal?
Yes, he could, as he somehow lifted the ball over the bar and then lay flat out on the turf as if he’d consumed a few too many at the Chairman’s Christmas Ball taking place later that night at New York.
Just for the record, with a trip to Fulham coming up on Tuesday, it was teetotal evening and an early departure for the players at Tony’s Stewart’s function. Newell just shot like he’d had a sneaky sniff of the Yuletide sherry.
FRECKS AND BELAID
Warne gave Belaid his first start in 11 months and was delighted to see skipper and talisman Frecklington back after a five-match injury absence.
On an afternoon of excellent performances, when the Millers cut the 13-point gap between them and safety to 10, those two and Ward led the man-of-the-match contenders.
“Frecks hasn’t played for weeks. I think he encapsulates everything we do,” Warne said.
“I feel like he is my manager on the pitch because - this may be doing him a disservice - I feel like he plays like I played. To have him on the pitch is a massive boost.
“When the spine of the team is strong, it gives you a chance. We had Belaid and Woody, who were outstanding, and Frecks, Wardy and everyone else were magnificent.”
The Millers scrapped for everything with all-out, hard-running commitment. A certain former Rotherham forward with no flair for French would have loved to have been played in this game for this side.
Instead, he sent out a team in his own image who were up for it in any language.
Very good, Warney. Tres bien, Belaid and co.