The Big Interview: Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart on Warne, Warnock, 10 years with the Millers and whether he plans to sell up
He could have lost Â£3 million of his personal fortune in building it, he turned down the chance to save Â£4m because it had to be perfect.
Tony Stewart is in the office of his lighting company in Rotherham. If he looks out of his window he can survey how the distinctive outline of AESSEAL New York Stadium stands guard over the town.
The driven, genial businessman is chairman of Rotherham United. 10 years ago, he rescued them from administration, reckoning it would be more fun than filling in crosswords at home. Four years later, the stunning 12,000-seater arena followed.
Since 2008, there have been two promotions, two trips to Wembley and two campaigns of against-the-odds survival in the Championship. On Sunday, the Millers will be at the national stadium again to contest the League One Play-off Final.
But New York is his crowning glory. The football club were on their knees, as was the town after several years of scandal and bad publicity. Stewart changed the landscape, literally and figuratively.
“I had a deadline,” he recalls from behind his sweeping wooden desk at ASD Lighting, an outsized mug of tea in his hand. “We were playing at Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield and the Football League were going to fine me £3m if the move back to the town was not completed after four seasons.
“That was my personal guarantee. The clock was ticking. The detail was incredible. I analysed every keyhole, every doorway, every avenue, every walkway in the stadium. It was intense. It had to be intense because we had to get it right.
“I remember someone coming to me and saying: ‘We can save you £4m if you take the corners out.’ I said: ‘No, no. This has got to be something that really stands out.’”
He’s not keen on me mentioning his exact age, but he looks unbelievably well for a man who has long been qualified for a free bus-pass. The weather has been good and he’s been squeezing in plenty of golf.
The shirt is blue gingham, the tie yellow and he bristles with good health. The shoes are uber-sharp, obviously expensive and don’t look like they’ve been bought from any High Street store. They’re tan, to match his face after his four visits a week to the fairways of Rotherham Golf Club.
When we meet on Barbot Hall Industrial Estate, the Millers are about to embark on their League One play-off campaign after finishing the regular season in fourth place. Stewart, for whom winning is everything and losing is for other people, is content again after three lost years in the Championship.
“To my dismay, we didn’t wisely spend the extra funding that was there,” he concedes. “We staggered for three seasons. We never competed. We never got it right. It was only a matter of time before we went down. When you get to great heights you need to enjoy those heights and we never did because we were ill prepared.”
The only time he truly enjoyed life at that level was in 2016 when Neil Warnock arrived and kept the club up with a 16-match miracle.
“What a character he is,” Stewart smiles. “I remember meeting Neil before his appointment with two or three members of the board in a hotel at Tewkesbury, six o’clock in the evening. We had a meal then Neil said: ‘Right, just you and me now.’
“The board went into another room and I said to Neil he had to make his mind up quickly. It was Wednesday and we had a game on Saturday. I said: ‘I’d love you to come up on Friday.’ He said: ‘I’ve got all my togs in the car. I’m coming to Rotherham now.’”
Stewart’s as friendly as always, radiating energy, and is an assured, relaxed talker. You can tell he’s used to addressing people. I bring the biscuits and he supplies the tea and quotes. That’s always been our deal.
After good-naturedly negotiating a phone call with a mouthful of Jaffa Cake, he puts his mobile to one side and recalls how a man originally from High Green, Sheffield, with no experience of football took over the Millers, still playing at ramshackle Millmoor at the time, and embarked on a journey that would earn him the Freedom of the Town.
“Rotherham Council were collecting money on behalf of the club,” he says. “I’d written two cheques and then came a request for a third. I thought that, rather than me sitting doing the crossword at home, it would be a challenge for me.
“I’d never had a season ticket, I’d never been to Millmoor, but I’d worked in Rotherham for the best part of 35 years. I just thought: ‘I’ll have a go at this. I’ve always been ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’.
“I was the guy from Sheffield taking over Rotherham and moving them to Sheffield because we couldn’t do a deal to stay at Millmoor. It was outrageous. But it was the only way.”
Nowadays it’s not Warnock at the helm but Paul Warne, the fitness coach who stepped up to the hot-seat after Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett had left the Millers with no chance of second-tier safety in 2017.
“Every manager had spoken very highly of him,” says Stewart, sat in his large leather seat, the wall behind him dominated by a huge Joe Scarborough original painting of New York Stadium, outsized umbrellas and other golfing paraphernalia stashed in a corner.
“Paul ‘got’ the culture of Rotherham. He’d played for Rotherham, he’d worked with managers here. It just felt right. What an opportunity for him. But what an opportunity for Rotherham as well.
“When he was offered the job, he was very hesitant. I told him managing in the Championship that season would be the worst managerial time of his life but that it would get better.
“He’s a doctor, he’s a matron, he’s a psychiatrist, he’s the headmaster. It’s his way of handling people. I love talking to him. I can be on the phone with him for 25 minutes and it seems like five, the gems that come out of his mouth. I see a young Neil Warnock.”
Stewart brought the club home in the nick of time. The emergency generators were needed when the stadium staged its first friendly in preparation for the real thing. Then, League Two opponents Burton Albion on glorious, sold-out 2012 opening day found themselves like one of the owner’s crossword spaces: three down.
His gleaming red Porsche Cayenne with personalised number plate stands in the car park. He likes speed and, reflecting on his reign, appropriately adds: “It’s been the fastest 10 years of my life.”
There’s no sign of him slowing down. “I still come to work every day. ASD is my game,” he says. “Golf is exercise for me. I gave up the gym about five years ago. Swinging a club and walking five miles three or four times a week, I think that’s good for the body.
“I like the fresh air, meeting people. I normally play early in the morning so I’m back in work by midday. Neil Warnock says he remembers Rotherham through me and him going golfing together. From getting up in a morning, I like to be active. I like to be busy.”
Business is booming. His company have LED downlights in Buckingham Palace while their street lighting illuminates Liverpool, Cambridge, Kent, Oxford and parts of London. Brighton could be next to fall to the ASD empire.
The real lights of his life, though, are wife Joan, son Richard, who is Millers vice-chairman, and young grandchildren Olivia, Isabelle and Thomas.
He’s unlikely to be spotted driving the Cayenne away from the Millers any time soon. “If some American wants to give me a billion dollars, maybe!” he jokes. “I’ve made a lot of friends in Rotherham as custodian of this club. I take that responsibility very seriously.
“There’s no ‘For sale’ sign, but I’m always guarded. If someone came to me in two, three, four years and said they had money to spend and I honestly believed they could do a better job than me, I would move aside.
“It’s a bit like flying pigs at the moment! I’m here for a while to enjoy what I think are good times ahead. The template we have now at Rotherham has never been better. This is the happiest I’ve been as a chairman.”
Too soon, it’s time for his next round of golf. Before our farewells, I catch my own glimpse of New York’s distinctive grey and red exterior from his first-floor office and he brings up his one remaining ambition. As much as he loves trips to the East Coast with Joan, there’s another place he is desperate to visit.
“We’re climbing the ladder,” he said. “We’ll keep climbing the ladder and this time we won’t fall off. What would I like to be saying to you in another 10 years? ‘Well, we got there and, you know what, we’re still there.’”
Clue: The promised land. Seven and six. Fill in the blanks.
BACKED OR SACKED
Tony Stewart has had nine managers in his decade as Rotherham United chairman and admits he doesn’t find it easy when it’s time for a parting of the ways.
“If we believe a manager can’t take us further and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, you have to make a decision,” he says. “You’re not making the decision just on your own behalf. You’ve got to think of the fans. They rely on us to be the custodians of their club.
“I do find it difficult to sit face to face with someone and sack them. I’ve been in business for 45 years and have to do the duties. It’s a responsibility you take on. We think about the fans. We look at the progress. We look at the lack of progress.
“You ask yourself: ‘Do we have confidence in the manager?’ Then a decision is made.
“I always deliver it. I never delegate that. I see the manager face to face. People don’t want a speech. It’s only one sentence. Every manager I have had to dismiss has been a gentleman with me. Sometimes, you can see they’re ready for it; it’s almost a relief to them.
“I’ve never had a bad relationship with any manager I’ve had. I let the manager manage. That’s his job, and I don’t interfere with that.”
The nine bosses, in chronological order, have been Mark Robins, Andy Scott, Ronnie Moore, Steve Evans, Neil Redfearn, Neil Warnock, Alan Stubbs, Kenny Jackett and Paul Warne.
Scott, Moore, Redfearn and Stubbs were fired, Robins left to join Barnsley, the exit of Evans was described as a mutual parting of the ways, Warnock turned down a new contract and Jackett quit after 39 days.
HIGHS AND LOWS
BEST MOMENT: “It has to be getting to the Championship in 2014.” (Rotherham beat Leyton Orient in a penalty shoot-out at Wembley after the League One Play-off Final had finished 2-2).
WORST MOMENT: “The most devastated I’ve felt was when we played Dagenham and Redbridge and lost 3-2 in the 2010 League Two Play-off Final. It was the first time I’d been to Wembley with my club. It was a big occasion. I felt frozen when we lost. It took me 48 hours to properly come back to my senses. I remember walking round Wembley. I wouldn’t go back to the hotel. I wanted to walk, I wanted to breathe. It was like I’d been hit by a double-decker bus. I was in shock.”