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Feature: Paul Warne - The Accidental Manager

But one heck of a manager he is…

9 January 2021

Meet the man whose ambition was to become a PE teacher, until a sliding doors moment turned him to a career in football. After almost 25 years in the game, Paul Warne recently celebrated four years in charge of Rotherham United. Not bad for someone who never wanted the job.

An hour of speaking with Paul Warne for the EFL Magazine reveals a number of things about the Rotherham United manager. He is a man with a genuine passion for life, he cares about people in such a way that is admirable and there’s no doubt that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Most importantly, though, he’s one of football’s good guys and the Millers are lucky to have him.

“Can you use a picture of me smiling?” he asks, before hanging up the phone.

“I always look grumpy in photos. I’m a funny guy, don’t make me look grumpy!”

Grumpy is certainly not a word that should be used to describe Paul Warne. In fact, after speaking to him at length, it’s hard to believe that such photos of him exist at all.

Turn back the clock four years, however, and you may have been speaking to a very different version of a man who, in 2016, reluctantly went from fitness coach to first- team manager overnight.

“It’s well documented that I didn’t want the job,” Warne admits, speaking to the EFL. “I didn’t train for the job and I didn’t think I was suited to the job.”

It wasn’t what he expected, and it wasn’t what he wanted, either. But having been asked by Chairman and good friend, Tony Stewart, to take control, Warne accepted.

“The club needed someone to take over temporarily, and I did it because I wanted to help the club during what was a really difficult time. The Chairman thought I had the attributes to be a successful manager, and fair play to him, because he had more confidence in me than I had in myself.”

After agreeing to the challenge, what followed was a period of prolonged unhappiness for Warne. His months as caretaker manager were as tough as they could possibly get. With only three members of backroom staff – including himself - Warne found himself leading the warm-ups, taking the training sessions and doing the team-talks, and was tasked with the near- impossible as the club battled to stay in the Sky Bet Championship.

There’s no doubt that, on the pitch, things were difficult for Rotherham. But, off the pitch, things were much worse for Warne.

“The longer the caretaker role went on for, the more I started to feel like I was in a locked room. I didn’t know how to get out,” he confides.

“I remember going into the training ground the morning after we’d lost to Sheffield Wednesday. The lads had given me everything, but we just weren’t good enough and our relegation was confirmed, live on Sky Sports.

“I went for a run at about 7am and I phoned my brother. I remember crying down the phone to him; I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d lost a stone in weight and I didn’t have a stone to lose; I had ulcers all over my mouth, I was spitting blood every morning, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t engaging with my family and I wasn’t enjoying life. I genuinely believed that I was taking years off my life, and I still believe now that I’ve taken years off my life. It was just too much for me and I couldn’t cope.

“We’d been relegated and I didn’t feel like I had improved the team in the last five months. In fact, I felt that I’d had no positive effect on the team at all. All I could see was the negative effect the job had on me and my personal life and all I wanted was my old life back.”

An alarming admission from the man who still sits in the Rotherham dugout today.

But perhaps the most humbling thing of all is the 47-year-old’s admittance of the fear of failure. Like so many of us in life, Warne was – and still is, to some extent – afraid of failure. He didn’t want to fail the club he loves so dearly.

In many ways, from that vulnerability came strength, even if he couldn’t see it himself.

“Every football manager works extremely hard; every manager takes the job home with them. I’m no different to anyone else in that sense, but I do have an emotional connection to this club.

“I’ve been involved with Rotherham United for the best part of 20 years, I didn’t want to fail them. I didn’t want my legacy at the club to be a failure and for the fans, my family and my children to witness that. I had a really successful time as a player and a coach at Rotherham, and the honest truth is that I didn’t have enough ambition to beat the fear of failure at the time.

“As a manager, you have to be thick-skinned; you can’t care what people think or say about you. That’s not who I am. I’m a sensitive guy; I want to be liked, which is a terrible trait as a manager, but that’s just who I am.”

Warne’s mind was made up. He would walk away from the dugout and return to his role as fitness coach, as Tony Stewart OBE promised him at the outset.

It’s credit to Stewart, then, that Warne took the job at all. And how right the Millers Chairman was to persuade him to carry on, because one thing is for sure, Rotherham would be a poorer place without him.

“They just pushed the right buttons with me,” Warne says, when asked why he took the job full-time.

“I say to my lads all the time ‘don’t ever live in regret’, and that’s what they said to me. They said, ‘just do it; if you fail, you fail, but don’t look back on your life and think, what if?’

“The club took a massive leap of faith in me. I felt physically sick at the thought of it, but they just convinced me not to be afraid of failure.”

Four years later and Rotherham United’s ‘accidental manager’ is now one of the EFL’s longest serving.

A latecomer to the professional game at 23, he once alluded to himself as a ‘managerial fraud’.

His introduction to the footballing world was certainly different, but spectacular all the same.

He himself admits that he is “more than fortunate” with how he fell into professional football, calling it a “sliding doors moment”.

Having graduated from Nottingham University with a Sports Science & Business degree, he completed his PGCE in the hope of fulfilling his ambition of becoming a teacher. “I haven’t got there yet, but maybe one day,” he jokes.

Before he knew it, the part-time footballer was signing professional terms with Wigan Athletic, and would go on to make more than 250 appearances for the Millers, finishing his playing career with more than 500 professional appearances to his name. A truly impressive career, during which Warne became a Rotherham legend, without even wanting to.

“When I was a manager standing in front of players who had all had much better careers than me, it just didn’t feel right,” he says. “I felt like a fraud.”

Two relegations, two promotions – including a dramatic Play-Off Final win at Wembley – Warne has experienced more in his managerial reign than others might in a lifetime. And now, he’s back in the Championship, competing against some of England’s biggest football Clubs. An established manager in the game, you might say.

“Not really!” Warne laughs.

“I suppose I don’t feel like a fake anymore. I’m more experienced in leadership, I’ve got thicker skin, I’ve learned that everyone is different, and my survival instincts have improved. I never used to be able to function after a bad result; I didn’t sleep and I didn’t eat. I’ve worked on that. If I don’t function properly and look after myself, then I won’t be able to give this team what it needs as its manager. I’m certainly wiser in that sense.

“I’ve experienced success and I’ve experienced failure. I can’t underestimate how those things have helped me learn as a manager. I feel very lucky to have had the people by my side through everything.

“I can’t believe it’s been four years, to be honest. Me and my staff always put a cross on the calendar each month when it’s payday, just in case. We’ve done that 48 times now and we haven’t lost our job yet! It’s gone quickly, but then, life does. You have to make the most of it.”

Yes, as a manager, he is demanding and he wants to be the best. But, above all, he cares. To this day, he continues to surround himself with players and staff who share his values. “Good people,” he calls them.

“I like to think that I was brought up well,” he says. “I had two loving parents, two loving brothers and my moral compass is really good. That’s important to me.

“I always try to surround myself with good people, and I like to think the fans know that about me. I hope they know that, win or lose, I give absolutely everything I can for this club. I’m a huge advocate of the work that’s done in the community and the importance of the role that the football club and my players can play. I’ve been involved with the club for such a long time now, I feel like I know everyone.

“I’ve got friends who are season ticket holders, I know the sponsors, I know the staff, and that’s an amazing thing when you have success, but it’s double the emotion when you’re not successful. That’s why, when we lose, I feel responsible for a lot of people’s happiness and that’s hard for me. I care so much.

“I like to surround myself with good people and the people of Rotherham United and the fans are brilliant people.

“I know I’m a bit quirky and overly emotional. I’ve had team talks where I’ve broken down in tears before, but that’s who I am. It’s important to treat players like human beings, not like footballers. Having that human connection with them is a great thing and, if it makes the players want to run through brick walls for me, then that’s great. I’d do exactly the same for them.”

After over an hour of refreshingly candid conversation, it’s impossible not to admire Warne.

His enthusiasm on the phone is clear. His passion for the game, his passion for the club and his passion for his players is portrayed, as he recalls some of his most memorable times in the dugout from the past four years.

shutterstock_editorial_9694566na.jpg2018 League One Play-Off Final

“Ironically, in all my time at the club, the second relegation season from the Championship was one of my proudest. That sounds strange, I know.

“The lads were excellent all season. They performed really well in every single game and that’s all I can ask for as a manager. We got the best out of them all, but it wasn’t enough.

“I remember we had a game at West Brom, it was our last away game of the season and we needed to win to have a chance of staying up. The night before the game, we were all in the hotel and I played the team the song ‘Faith’ by George Michael. Everyone got up and started hugging each other, thanking them for their efforts that season. I remember my coaching staff telling me that the players wouldn’t like it, but I said, ‘who cares?’

“It could have been my last game in management and that was what I wanted to do. We had that moment and I was proud as punch as their manager the next day. Yes, we lost the game and we got relegated, but the lads played out of their skin. I remember all the fans staying to clap the team off and they showed such appreciation to the side. It was a really proud moment for me.”

But does he ever miss being just the fitness coach?

“Oh my goodness, yes!” he laughs. “I loved it. As a role at a football club, it is the joy of joys. But I don’t regret where I am now, definitely not.

“There’s no doubt that results in football affect your mental health when it’s your job, but it’s about controlling that. I often park up on the side of the road and sit in my car for an extra hour before going inside when I get home, to try and change my mindset. I want to go home and be a nice dad, a nice husband and be in a good place. So, there are good days and bad days; it’s a really tough job, but I always do my very best.”

It’s been quite a journey for the 47-year-old in the dugout so far, so what do the next four years hold?

“What a question!” he responds.

“In 10 years’ time I’ll be 57. If I’m still alive then, I’ll be absolutely buzzing!

"I like to think I’ll still be involved in football. I hope that my four years so far at Rotherham have justified my existence in football management but, if I ever leave management, I’ll be on the lookout for fitness coach roles. That’s if anyone will have me! 

“I hope when the time comes that I’m not a football manager, I’ll look back and think of all the great times and appreciate them. You don’t often have the time to drink from the fountain of joy as a football manager, but it’s important to look back and appreciate the good times.”

A truly humble man, there’s no doubt that Rotherham is in Warne’s heart, a heart he wears so openly on his sleeve.

“You can’t put a price on good people,” he said, at the beginning of the interview. And that is exactly why Rotherham United is lucky to have him.

This feature first appeared in the December 2020 edition of the EFL magazine.

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