Rotherham United: Why Warnock is worth it but the wait has to end

Neil Warnock
Neil Warnock

At first the decision was going to made last week. Then it was coming by the end of May. Now it’s due in the next few days.

The ‘will he or won’t he?’ saga surrounding Neil Warnock and whether he stays with Rotherham United or walks away from the club he so famously saved from the drop is almost concluded.

By the middle of the week, one way or the other, we should all be put out of our misery.

The reason the waiting is almost over is because waiting is the one thing Millers chairman Tony Stewart simply can’t afford to do.

Rotherham couldn’t countenance another two weeks of not knowing if they had a manager or not while rival clubs are already making firm plans for next season.

So Stewart has applied the pressure.

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

He no doubt would have liked an answer last Thursday when the two men met for serious negotiating. Warnock, aware that his survival exploits at AESSEAL New York Stadium could attract suitors offering him a better chance of a record-breaking eighth career promotion, had been intending to bide his time until much nearer the expiry of his short-term deal at the close of this month.

They compromised. The relationship between the pair is one of warmth and openness. Mutual respect saw Stewart allow Warnock a few more days’ thinking time and the manager to accept the owner’s need for early clarity.

No man, not even a messiah, is bigger than the club. But everyone wants The Messiah to stay, and the support he has received from fans will be a factor in his decision.

“It can’t do any harm. Everybody wants to loved, don’t they,” he told me in the days leading up to Thursday’s talks. “But I am not daft. I know how quickly that can change in football.”

Lee Frecklington

Lee Frecklington

“I think I have always been well liked at Rotherham, but you have to look at your own personal life before you make a decision. and once the decision was made by (wife) Sharon that I was going to do another year then you have to look at all of the options open.

“Everybody knows I have got seven promotions and nobody has got eight. That is a big pull. At the same time, keeping Rotherham up in the Championship with all the big clubs coming down would be a big pull.

“It’s just matter of working out what is going to be right.”

Warnock’s epic 16-match reign will see him go down in Millers folklore, regardless of forthcoming events.

Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly

His effect, mad March when one promotion contender after another was despatched and that incredible 11-match unbeaten run ultimately defined a Championship season which ended in a survival miracle but was threatening to go horribly wrong before his February appointment.

Steve Evans started the campaign in charge, yet not even two successive promotions and then keeping the Millers in the second tier could save him when Stewart and the board decided that a transfer policy which has seen 89 arrivals in just over three years couldn’t be allowed to go on.

The shock opening-day 4-1 defeat home defeat to promoted MK Dons, with a team containing new signings like goalkeeper Kelle Roos and wingers Adie White and Chris Maguire, showed that Evans’ summer recruitment hadn’t been without its flaws.

But he did save the best until last, making goalkeeper Lee Camp, who would go on to be the club’s Player of the Year, his final ever signing.

Neil Redfearn, good man, good coach, came in in October but was gone four months later, with the Millers where he had found them when he took charge of his first match, third bottom.

He had his highs - 2-0 New York victories over Hull City and Brighton - but more lows and was done for in the rain at Bolton Wanderers as the bottom club beat his side 2-1 in the last minute a week after a jolting 4-1 Millers reverse at home to another team at the foot of the table, Charlton Athletic.

Leon Best

Leon Best

Rotherham fans had been expecting six points from those encounters, four at the very worst. The zero achieved matched the Millers’ tolerance policy .

It was hard, at the time, not to feel sorry for Redfearn. But Stewart’s decisiveness and ambitious, speedy wooing of Warnock saved the club’s season.

Rotherham were immediately harder to score against, although the new boss’s first three games brought only a single point, and an undeserved 1-0 loss at Reading saw the Millers slip six points adrift of a safety spot.

That February 23 night in Berkshire was Warnock’s lowest point. I remember him afterwards at the Madejski Stadium, disappointed, unhappy, facing a long drive back through the night to Launceston, muttering almost to himself: “I’m still their best chance of getting out of trouble.”

Then came an unsung hero. Only this time it wasn’t Sharon.

Mrs Warnock’s courage in encouraging her husband to accept Stewart’s offer while she was battling an illness has won the hearts of all Millers, but on February 27, at New York, against Brentford, in a match Rotherham simply had to win, it was referee Mark Brown who unwittingly lit the survival fire.

With Rotherham in front 1-0 through Matt Derbyshire, the East Yorkshire official wrongly awarded the Bees a 42nd-minute penalty leading to Alan Judge’s equaliser. New York seethed through half-time and something glorious happened.

Fans and players, bonded by their sense of injustice, irresistibly came together in the hour of greatest need. It was all too much for Brentford, Danny Ward scored the winner and even Brown admitted he was pleased.

Warnock was a different man afterwards, and the rest - the wins, the run, the Derby comeback, the Battle of Bristol, the march to safety - is history.

The manager kept the message simple - get the ball as far away from our penalty area as quickly as you can and put the ball into the opposition’s as much as you can - inspired his band of willing battlers, made the most of the returns from injury of Lee Frecklington, Leon Best and Stephen Kelly, reinvented Greg Halford and handed a long-overdue chance to Richard Wood.

And behind all those players was the redoubtable Camp.

Redfearn is entitled to wonder how he might have fared if Frecklington and two players he signed, Best and Kelly, had been available to him more often. Warnock might ask why Halford and Wood were unused assets before his entrance.

That doughty midfielder competitor, Richie Smallwood, topped the appearances chart with 42 starts, followed by Camp, on 41, and Joe Mattock’s 35. Kirk Broadfoot and Grant Ward were the only other players to begin more than 30 matches, although the 27 games which featured Frecklington were when Rotherham did most damage to most teams.

Rotherham used 40 players in all. Calamity Kelle made only four league appearances before heading back early to parent club Derby County. It just felt like more.

The Millers’ campaign ended barely a week ago, but the managerial conundrum means the focus is already more on what happens next rather than the miracle escape that has gone before.

Sharon has had her say. Her main influence has been in supporting her husband’s desire for one more year. Now it is up to him to decide where.

“She wants me to go where I would be happy,” Warnock said.

A decision is imminent. And necessary.

Warnock has made recommendations about which of the out-of-contract bunch he feels are worth keeping.

But the Millers, obviously, wouldn’t want to hand out deals to his chosen ones only to find he leaves and that his successor doesn’t fancy those players quite as much.

If he departs, he will be Rotherham’s shortest-serving manager yet the one who has made the biggest impact.

If he stays, it’s the fans’ dream come true, and Stewart will have delivered yet again.

One supporter, after the Millers’ place in the second tier had been mathematically assured by the 0-0 draw at Wolves on April 23, sent Warnock a letter the boss really liked.

It thanked him for his magnificent achievement. It said that whatever decision he made would be respected. And it highlighted just how much he has become part of the fabric of the town.

“My wife has just gone out with the washing,” it ended. “She’s singing ‘Neil Warnock is a Red’ as she’s hanging it on the line.”

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Greg Halford

Greg Halford