Rotherham United: '˜I'd wake up and spit blood. My body was dying on me' ... Paul Warne one year on, the interview
The tortured solo shifts in the early hours of the morning are a thing of the past, but Paul Warne still remembers the time when he felt his body was starting to give up on him.
The time he stepped up to manage the football club where he is a legend.
Revered since his playing days, he’d gone on to be Rotherham United’s fitness coach. He was, to quote one of his oft-used phrases, a good human being. Friendly, funny, excelling in his job, the most popular figure in the Millers camp.
Then, a year ago this week, the call came asking him to step into the managerial hot-seat after the disastrous reigns of Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett had left Rotherham reeling.
Hello darkness, my new friend ...
“It was pretty brutal,” he recalls. “I used to sleep with a pad and pen beside the bed. I just couldn’t get through a whole night. And anyone who knows me knows I am a professional sleeper. I never wake up during sleep - well, apart from an ‘old man’ wee; one a night possibly, sometimes none.
“When I became manager, Monday would be okay but as the week progressed it got worse and worse. I’d be thinking about the team, what I wanted to say to the team, what I wanted to do in training, who I was going to drop, how I was going to drop them, how they were going to take being dropped.
“It was a constant cycle. I’d go to sleep, wake up at two in the morning. My brain would be absolutely flying about. I just could not get back to sleep. 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.
“I’d lost a stone in weight. I had no desire to eat food. I wasn’t anti-food. I was just never hungry. I was always wired. Internally, my body was in deep crisis.”
Young daughter Riley was oblivious. Still is, grins Warne, the humour which is never far from the surface quickly returning. “If I come home and we’ve lost, she might be: ‘Oh Dad, unlucky. There are no choc ices left.’”
We meet in his neat, airy office at the Millers’ training complex at Roundwood. I say neat. A plate bearing the remnants of his chicken lunch is on his desk. Meals are always healthy. Paraphernelia relating to his job clutters the surface. There’s also a Macbook and three Warne essentials: a banana, a beanie hat and a granola bar. It’s organised. More airy than neat.
Twelve months on from the November 28 events which changed his life, Warne, having swapped his caretaker tag for the permanent role in April, is a more relaxed figure. It helped that his side started League One well in his first full season in charge, although it hasn’t helped that recent results have gone against them.
“When I drop players on a Friday, I’m still not comfortable doing it, but I’ve got used to it,” he says. “I know some managers say they quite enjoy telling people because they want someone to suffer when they think they’ve under-performed, but that’s not me.”
The eyes and smile are as warm as ever. But some things aren’t the same. These days, he leaves his Tickhill home around 7am and often isn’t back by 7pm. And it’s not ‘Warney’ anymore, it’s ‘Gaffer’.
“Richie (No 2 Barker) and Hammy (coach Matt Hamshaw) said ‘you have to be called ‘Gaffer’ because the lads need that respect pillar’,” he says. “A couple of the lads still ‘Pal’ me off by accident. That’s a tenner fine if they call me ‘Pal’ or ‘Warney’.”
He lifts weights every day before work and runs regularly. “Fundamentally, fitness is my release,” he says. “If I’m really struggling, I’ll go for a run. That’s the best thing to clear my head.”
Books help the qualified teacher to unwind. He’s reading four at the moment - one on Pep Guardiola, a dissection of the German football system, a tome on training yourself to delegate and a thriller.
“I do love TV above anything, though,” he says. “When Blue Planet is on, the kids have to turn off their phones. No-one is allowed to speak for the whole hour. They have to watch.
“They probably don’t want to, but they know it means a lot to me that they do. After that, it’s anarchy. But I have that one hour of sanctuary when I can lose myself.”
He goes off to sort out two cups of tea and couldn’t look or sound more disgusted when I ask for half a sugar.
Rotherham’s windmill crest dominates one wall in his office. In front of him, a wall-mounted chalkboard contains bullet points about the Millers’ next opponents. Behind him, a similar board has his likely line-up marker-penned on it along with that day’s training drills.
The reserves are in action on a bright November afternoon and the sun is stronger than you’d expect as it hits the windows which frame two manicured pitches. The Millers second string are winning on one of them as we talk. Warne looks a man happy in his work.
Yet the darkness can return with one defeat.
“If we lose, my Saturday night is completely gone,” he says. “I had my brother and his daughters up the other week and I sat on the sofa with my hood up. I did not say a word. And I love my brother and nieces over anyone.
“They didn’t even speak to me because they understand. It’s awful, innit? It’s no way to lead your life. That could have been the last Saturday of my life and I’ve wasted it.”
Wife Rachel, a financial advisor, son Mack, aged 13, and 11-year-old Riley are all regular matchday visitors to AESSEAL New York Stadium. The clan are close and Warne knows he is a lucky man.
“My missus, I feel for her,” he says. “But then I can’t - I really can’t - change how I am if we lose. I was sitting there after the Crewe game the other week. I knew I was being an a*sehole, but I couldn’t get myself out of it. She’s my best friend. If the job ended tomorrow, it wouldn’t have any effect on our relationship.
“My kids are ace. If Riley has her iPad or something is great in her life, she doesn’t really mind what is happening as long as there are choc ices. I can see the pain in my son’s eyes when we’ve lost because he’s a big fan.
“He’s been to loads of away games this season. I struggle with that. I never want my son to hear me being abused on the terraces. He should never hear that, but I know at some stage he will.
“He’s the one I find it hardest to look at after a loss because he sort of wants to have a conversation with me but sort of knows he can’t. It’s a bit sad that really, innit?
“My family are brilliant with me. Maybe I’m not brilliant with them, which is difficult to admit.”
He highlights the pressures of the job more than the pleasures, but no-one could be prouder to lead a team.
The tears he famously cried in his first, emotional week in charge have long gone, but his bottom lip trembles when I ask him to contemplate a time when he and the Millers part company.
His voice breaks as he says: “When I leave, that will ...” He pauses and exhales long and hard before he can continue. “That will be difficult.
“I haven’t really given it that much thought, Mate.” He tails away. “I dunno, I dunno ...
“I don’t know how managers turn up when fans have turned on them. If I saw 10 supporters with ‘Warne out’ banners, that would break me. As soon as I thought I’d lost the respect of the fans, I’d go and speak to the chairman.”
The reserves match is over. He’s off to a meeting shortly in his blue company BMW. Electric, so he pays less tax. Nobody has ever cared less about cars and their status. It was different when the bike he loved like a third child was pinched.
“I want to be remembered as a good bloke with a good moral code who had a sense of humility and humour and who always did his best,” he says.
“That’s good enough for me. If that gets me success, great. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to change my character.
“I still have fears of failure, like any other human being. If ever I wake up now and think about the team, I just tell myself to think of something else and go back to sleep. I accept the fact that I have got responsibilities but I don’t have them at 2am anymore.”
Problems for a man balancing his love for his club with his love for his family can wait until morning, no matter what they are.
Training. Who to drop. How to drop them. How they’ll take being dropped. Choc ices.
‘Warney’ in his own words
Managing ‘his’ club: “I think that makes it harder. I know a lot of people who buy tickets, who go to games, who have season tickets. These are people who I’ve been friends with for years who text me desperate for a win. Whenever I go into a game, I carry the weight of expectation of a lot of people, including my own family. I live in a constant Rotherham United bubble. I’m friends with the commercial director, Steve Coakley. I want to do well for him so it’s easier for him to sell commercial space. If I was at, say, Bristol Rovers, I’d have the pressure of the team doing well but I wouldn’t have the friendships I have here that indirectly add to the pressure. Friends don’t mean to do that. They all try to help me. But it does hit me, Mate, to be honest.”
Job prospects: “I know I am only ever four defeats away from the sack. I could lose four before this goes to print and be out of a job. There’s that feeling that you’ve got to win the next game and the next game. Over the season, there might be 50 games. That constant pressure on you is emotionally draining.”
Another time of tears: “I always remember running round Center Parcs when I was about 36. I cried for about a mile. I cried like a baby. I was thinking about how I was getting older, that this could be my last season as aplayer. My wife and kids see me as the provider. What am I going to do? Everyone knew me as a footballer. When you come to the end of your playing career - and I’ve seen this happen with a lot of my friends - it can really hit your self-esteem. On that run, Jeez, I was bawling. But I felt amazing when I finished. Then I had the best day at Centre Parcs I’ve ever had with my kids and thought: ‘B*lls to it.’” (He went on to play until he was 39).
Biggest strength: “I think I am good with players, individually and collectively. I have a good rapport with them. Whether they agree with me or not, I don’t think any of them could ever say I’m not fair. And I’m the first to stick my hand up if I think I’ve done something wrong. I try to be 100 per cent honest and I expect the same back. I’m not a hypocrite.”
Main weakness: “Maybe I’m indecisive at times. I’m not sure whether to stick or twist, whether to be happy with a point. From 15 minutes on in a game, my brain is doing cartwheels. I think I’m a ‘gut feeling’ coach rather than tactical. But luckily for me Richie (No 2 Barker) is very tactically orientated so, between us, we’re all right. Sometimes, I don’t believe in myself enough. I still feel a bit of a fraud in professional football, even though I’ve been doing it for 20-odd years. Sometimes, because I came out of non-league in my 20s, I feel like I’ve jumped on the back of the train on the last carriage. If we lose, I’ll text all the staff and apologise. That sounds a bit stupid in the cold light of day, but I feel if the team have lost I have let them down because it’s their livelihood.”
Leaving football: “I always see a future for me outside of football, I just don’t know what as. I always thought I’d end up working out in America, but as soon as you have kids your life is different. Maybe I could coach at a university in America, but my kids are really happy and settled where they live in Yorkshire. My son loves everything ‘moist’. I like the idea of going and living away. I might stay around until the kids are at uni or whatever. I say that now, but that’s nearly 10 years down the road. In my 50s, I don’t know if I’ll have the drive to do it. I’d like to think that whatever I did I’d be pretty good at it because I’m very dedicated and hard-working. If I was a postman, I’d like to think I could do my round quicker than anyone else. I’ve had this question in my head for years. It might be that the game is kind to me and I’m in football until I’m 65.”