In the eyes of Antonio Conte, ketchup and mayonnaise are strictly forbidden. Pep Guardiola is supposedly not keen on his squad eating pizza and David Moyes has voiced concerns about chips finding their way into a player’s diet. At Rotherham United, the League One leaders, there is one simple rule at the training ground: mobile phones are banned. “Some lads will definitely have their phones in their toiletry bags but apart from doing a military strip search there is not much I can do on that,” says their affable manager, Paul Warne. “Sometimes I do like to casually walk through their dressing room and just catch someone. I think if they’re not on their phones all the time, they might actually speak to each other, which is quite a nice thing.”
Conversation flows with Warne, whether he is discussing dressing up for the Super Bowl, being a big James Bond fan – “although the Timothy Dalton phase was a bit cheesy” – his mother tuning into every Rotherham game on iFollow, comparing the nauseating feeling of wanting his players to succeed to watching your child play the lead role in the school pantomime, or taking his labrador, Chief, for a walk to decompress after a game.
“It is a bit of sanity for me, talking to a four-legged friend. I saw something on YouTube the other day saying that when dogs go out for their walk, it is like their social media. They’ll scratch their feet on a bit and that’s like an Instagram shot, they’ll wee on a bit and that’s like a Twitter post, they’ll send something else and that’s like a Facebook thing, and they’ll leave messages for other dogs. So whenever I go out now, because my dog loves to scent on virtually everything he sees, I’m thinking: ‘What a good, sociable dog he is.’ The whole village’s dogs must wait for his next message.”
Warne, a qualified teacher and previously the team’s fitness coach, is modest and searingly honest, so much so at times it is hard to remember he is a successful manager – Rotherham are 15 games from what would be his third promotion to the Championship in five years – but there are more serious subjects to broach, too. He tries not to beat himself up as much these days but acknowledges it is easy to say that when things are going well. His team have the Football League’s best defensive record – five goals conceded away from home – and are League One’s top scorers. Keeping the team in the second tier has eluded him, though. “It feels like something around my neck to a certain extent,” he says. “We want to try and work our way up to feeling like we belong in the Championship, which is a big ask, but it isn’t unattainable.”
Warne believes management has wiped years off his life and last month had his annual medical “MOT” courtesy of the League Managers Association. “You get your heart scanned, your lungs, you do a fitness test on a treadmill while you’re all ECG’d up, you get your hearing tested, which is probably about my only great attribute … you get your prostate checked, you get everything,” the 48-year-old says, before recalling a game at AFC Wimbledon in August 2019.
“I stood up to shout at a player 10 minutes into the game and I just went all wobbly. I thought: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to collapse.’ I had just lost my dad and I was heavily dehydrated. I hadn’t eaten all day. I went for a run in the morning and I remember crying – I probably had some emotive music on as well. I was completely drained. It highlighted the fact that you can go from sitting still to your heart rate being 200 beats per minute in the split of a decision. Some managers don’t eat on a match day. It’s really difficult to eat on a match day but since then I’ve forced myself to drink more and eat something. Stress is definitely a killer and there cannot be many jobs more stressful than a football manager.”
Last season was particularly painful, with Rotherham relegated on the final day after conceding an 88th-minute equaliser at Cardiff scored by Marlon Pack, who apologised to Warne for his mis-hit shot that nestled in the opposite corner. Warne fought back tears during an emotional post-match interview. Does he sometimes pine for quieter life? “I think all managers would to a certain extent. They probably won’t admit it because it’s the worse thing to say if you ever want to be employed by a different club, but there are times when I’m on the side of the pitch thinking: ‘What am I doing this for? I’m in absolute purgatory standing here, freezing my chuff off,’ the other manager is abusing you for something, and sometimes you just think: ‘Wow, this is some way to earn a living.’”
If anything sums up Warne, it is the heartfelt video call he shared with his players and staff upon promotion in 2020, when he broke down at the end of a series of thank-you messages. He won’t be waxing lyrical on Friday, regardless of the result against second-placed Wigan. “After a game I always shake the hand of every single player and staff member, whether we win 5-0 or lose 5-0; I’ll never change that,” he says. “I thanked them when we got relegated at Cardiff. But you can’t thank them mid-season because as soon as you thank them, they think they have got it sussed.”