Rotherham United: The badge on the floor, respect and how Millers boss Paul Warne has proved the doubters wrong
The floor of the inner sanctum at the training ground is dominated by the club's crest.
An image of the Millers badge is there, in all its red and white glory, in the main dressing room, a reminder at Roundwood that this is Rotherham United.
Players can’t stand on it and they’re not allowed to drop their dirty kit on it. Either offence brings a fine.
It underpins the message of Paul Warne’s revolution since he took permanent charge 13 months ago.
Respect the badge. Respect yourself. Respect me. Respect your club.
Warne is big on respect. On Saturday, his men begin their League One play-off campaign at Scunthorpe United. After a season of success, three matches stand between them and promotion to the Championship.
It’s a far cry to just over a year ago when Rotherham were sliding out of the second tier. Warne was at the helm then, having just stepped up from being caretaker boss.
Not even he could stop the 2016/17 rot set by previous managers Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett. Nobody could have. Warne needed a pre-season, to do things how he saw fit, to change the culture of the squad. Less Dexter Blackstock, more Will Vaulks.
Then, the training headquarters reflected the Millers’ mire. Now, after major investment, a sparkling, purpose-built structure is in place. New facilities, new attitude. No moaners, no dissenters. Rotherham are a team in every sense of the word.
“I’m not trying to be overly humble, but I’m just one little part of it,” Warne says. “There’s Richie (assistant boss Barker), Hammy (coach Matt Hamshaw), Polly (goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt), Breck (part-time bit of everything John Breckin), the physios, everyone.
“In my office, I don’t have a manager’s desk where I’m the bigwig. I have a desk that four people can sit round. It’s a brilliant place to work.
“The lads are all respectful of the staff and understand we’re trying to do the best thing for them. Loads of times, you have to tell people they’re not in the team, but I haven’t had an argument with any of the players this year, which is testament to them ... and obviously to my man-management skills!”
He adds the last part with a grin. The push for promotion is a serious busines, but he uses humour as a way of deflecting pressure and carrying men with him.
Warne rule one: We eat together. Rule two: No baseball caps. Rule three: No phones.
Just about the only time the players use their mobiles when they’re on Millers is duty is when the manager conducts interactive quizzes about the opposition on away trips.
Players are given crib sheets a couple of days earlier and then tested with their phones linked. They try to beat each other, they help each other out. The laughs are big and the benefits even bigger: teammates bonding without even realising it.
From time to time, Warne’s own phone rings at Press conferences. ‘Current Wife’ flashes up as Mrs Warne tries to get hold of him. When he calls her, ‘Hunky Hubby’ appears on her screen. The lovely Rachel really ought to know better than to leave her mobile unlocked and unattended when her worse half is on the prowl.
He’s as big on family as he is on respect. Rachel, daughter Riley and son Mack are regular matchday visitors to AESSEAL New York Stadium, along with his brother, Neil, who drives up from Norfolk. 14-year-old Mack loves an away day among the vocal Millers following Warne affectionately nicknames ‘the hoodlums’.
The manager is a former Millers player and fitness coach. A man with Rotherham history is in charge of Rotherham, surrounded by staff who also have strong connections to the club. Barker and Pollitt are past players, Breckin an ex-player and assistant manager. Hamshaw has been a fan since childhood, the one regret of his playing career that he never got to pull on a Millers shirt.
There’s a similar family feel among the players - decent men, brothers who give their all. Warne kept the ones worth keeping and gave them direction and purpose, shed the ones who weren’t interested and added ones who were. That was always the type of squad he wanted to build.
“If nothing else happens and I was to get sacked in three, four weeks’ time, I’d have no regrets,” he says. “I did it my way, the way I wanted to manage the team, the way I wanted to play.
“I’ve always been really honest with the players, which is exhausting at times. I think I’ve been fair with everyone.
“I’m very quirky as a a manager, I know that. But I’ve been true to myself. I’m just really pleased that if I do nothing else in management I can look back and think: ‘Well, in that year I had a right go.’”
The badge on the floor has become a big feature of Roundwood. Warne being Warne, couldn’t help amusing himself when it was about to laid in pre-season.
He taped out an area around twice the size it was actually going to be and then watched in silent mirth as his players tip-toed around it, aghast at the thought of having only a few inches of shuffle room in their own den.
It’s not just about laughs. The competitive fire burns in him as deeply as it did in his playing days when effort, desire and lack of talent made him the world’s leading throw-in winner and a club legend.
He was last down the tunnel after a top-six place had been sealed with a New York win over Bristol Rovers last month. Forget the handshakes and smiles. The raised arms and intense animal roar as he left the pitch said more.
Many supporters were dubious about his appointment, some downright hostile to it, but few question him now.
“I know a load of people doubted in the beginning, but that’s just the society we live in, innit?” he says. “I’m a bit of a legacy man so, when I took the job on, one of the aims was that when I left - whether that be in a month, a year, two years - I would be able to pass the club over in a healthier state than I got it.
“The majority of the group will be here next year. I’d like to think the team will get better and stronger next year. There’ll be natural erosion and a couple of new faces coming in. The more the season has gone on, the less shouting there has had to be from me and Richie on the sideline because the players get the message.”
Criticism and tough decisions have thickened his skin. Dropping players and a bit of lingering abuse from one or two oddballs don’t keep him awake the way they used to.
He remains the good human being he was before chairman Tony Stewart persuaded him to permanently take the hot-seat.
His players point to the inspiration of a natural leader. David Ball and Richard Wood have both been left out of the side in this campaign, yet I’ve seen Ball share bear-hugs with Warne that bristle with mutual appreciation while captain Wood describes his boss’s man-management as the best he’s experienced in more than 15 years as a pro.
There’s obviously not a lot wrong with quirky.
The Roundwood win wall is looking crowded these days. After every victory, Warne frames and hangs the photograph he feels best depicts the triumph. Players scrabble for position on it in much the same way they did just along the corridor when their manager pulled his tape trick.
Whatever transpires in the play-offs, it has been a campaign to remember, a transformation not to be forgotten.
“There isn’t an hour of my life when I don’t think about the club,” the figure who has led the turnaround says. “Promotion would be the greatest achievement of my career, better than anything I did as a player.”
Then comes his parting shot: “I am proud because I think I have assembled a good group of men who want to do well for the club.”
That, even more than a set of results which has put the Millers on the brink of an immediate return to the Championship, is what matters most to him.
Respect for the badge. Respect for themselves. Respect for him. Respect for the club.
WARNE’S WORDS OF 2017/18
Before Rotherham United played Lincoln City in the Carabao Cup: “Lincoln are a good side. They put Wycombe Wanderers to the sword on Saturday. Actually, they drew. Maybe you need to change sword to water pistol.”
On the merits of targetmen Jamie Proctor and Kieffer Moore being paired up front together: “I’m telling yer, if you were an opposing centre-half, you wouldn’t fancy playing against them two big horses, would yer?”
On Richard Wood’s winner in a 3-2 triumph over Fleetwood Town: “Woody says it’s gone in off his knee, which is good because his feet are horrendous.”
On his personal struggle when he first became manager: “I’d chomp on the side of my mouth when I was sleeping, grind my teeth. I’d wake up and spit blood and I had loads of ulcers in my mouth. Slowly but surely, in a very melodramatic way, I think my body was dying a little bit.”
On Jon Taylor’s non-stop running after the winger had returned from a long injury absence as a substitute at Oxford United: “Tayls had a bit of energy, didn’t he? It was like he’d been locked in a cupboard for three years.”
On captain Wood policing player fines: “It’s his job because he’s the skipper. Is he any good? He’s like a bank manager. Nothing gets past him.”
On trying to get midfielder Richie Towell to stay in position: “It’s like when you let your dog off a lead and you don’t know what’s about to happen. ‘Oh no, fricking hell. He’s going after the ducks.’”