There cannot be many in the game who have started their career in management with a sequence of relegation-promotion-relegation, but that is precisely the track record of Rotherham United’s Paul Warne. The lifelong Norwich City supporter has followed his own path through the game and carved a fine career from a relatively unpromising start. Warne did not have the common apprenticeship/academy background, and interestingly once referred to himself as a ‘football fraudster’, waiting to be found out because of his non-league origins. In that sense, he is as much a victim of football snobbery as our own Danny Cowley. With a degree in biology and a master’s in sports science and business, Warne is clearly a bit different from the stereotypical ‘sick as a parrot’ manager.
Having grown up in the Norfolk Broads, Warne cut his playing teeth as a striker in the local non-league game, initially with Great Yarmouth Town in the Eastern Counties League. Combining football with his university studies was paramount at that time, but success was no stranger. In 1994 his Diss Town side went all the way to the FA Vase final where they beat Taunton Town 2-1 after extra time in front of 13,450 at the old Wembley. Diss had trailed for most of the game and only equalised with a stoppage-time penalty. In one sense, non-leaguer Warne had achieved something that eludes the majority of professional footballers: not just to play at Wembley, but to win a cup final there. But there were still better things to come for Paul Warne, and after a short spell playing for Wroxham, he was picked up by Wigan Athletic during the summer of 1997 for £25,000. He was 24 at the time.
Wigan had just been promoted as champions of the Third Division (tier four at that time) under manager John Deehan, and Warne made his debut at the end of August in a 3-0 defeat at Bristol City, the victims of a Shaun Goater hat-trick. In the Wigan team that day was current Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, then starring in Wigan’s midfield. Warne was destined to make most of his Wigan appearances from the bench, although he scored his first goal in League football in the eighth minute of a 2-0 win at Blackpool on 31 January 1998. Wigan established themselves in the third tier with a comfortable eleventh-place finish, but Deehan was replaced as manager by Wigan stalwart Ray Mathias during the close season. Wigan got off to a great start in 1998-99 with a 5-2 opening day win over Wycombe, although Warne did not feature. A personal highlight was a substitute appearance at Carrow Road in the League Cup, but Warne was to play only a handful more games at Springfield Park. On 7 November he joined high-flying Conference side Kettering Town on a month’s loan, and on 28 November 1998 Warne scored after 17 seconds against Forest Green, which is still the club record at Kettering.
On his return to Wigan, it was clear his days were numbered and he was transferred to mid-table Third Division side Rotherham United on 15 January 1999. In total, he made 62 appearances for Wigan, although only fifteen were starts. He made his Rotherham debut the following day and got off to a great start with two goals in a 3-1 win over Leyton Orient. He scored two more at Halifax a fortnight later as Rotherham commenced a run for promotion over the second half of the season. A 2-1 win over Brighton secured the play-off place, but Rotherham went out on penalties to Orient after two 0-0 draws. Rotherham started the 1999-2000 season with a 2-1 opening day defeat at Lincoln with Warne scoring a 90th-minute consolation, but it was all very comfortable after that. Rotherham enjoyed a very consistent season and were promoted in second place after a 2-1 win at Hartlepool in the penultimate game. Ronnie Moore’s side went straight through the Second Division in 2000-01, finishing in second place for the second successive season, and promotion was again secured in the penultimate game with a 2-1 win. Another highlight was an FA Cup third-round match at Anfield where Rotherham were beaten 3-0 by Liverpool.
Life in the second tier was much tougher, and Rotherham failed to win any of their opening ten games. Warne was injured in the third game against Sheffield United and missed two months. They lifted themselves off the bottom with a 2-0 win at Grimsby on 5 October and commenced a titanic struggle against relegation. A run of three wins and two draws in February put some distance between themselves and the bottom three, but Rotherham failed to win any of their final ten games. The penultimate game came to the rescue again, as a 2-2 draw with Birmingham ensured safety, ultimately on goal difference. The 2002-03 season got away to a tremendous start with a 6-0 victory at Millwall on the opening day, courtesy of four goals from Darren Byfield. They eventually slipped back into mid-table and remained there for the rest of the season to finish fifteenth.
Things were much tighter in 2003-04, and Rotherham sat in the bottom three for much of the season. An incredible run of six wins and two draws in November and December carried them nine points clear of trouble, but they slipped slowly back down the table thereafter. The penultimate game proved decisive again, this time a 3-0 win over Burnley guaranteeing safety. A highlight of the season came in the third round of the League Cup in October. Drawn away to Arsenal, Rotherham held the Gunners 1-1 despite having goalkeeper Mike Pollitt sent off. Rotherham then lost 9-8 on penalties. The 2004-05 season saw the birth of the Championship, and Rotherham were destined to leave it after one season. They failed to win any of their opening twenty games and remained bottom for the entire season. Warne spent November on loan at League Two Mansfield and was restored to the Millers’ team on his return. A 3-0 home defeat in the FA Cup to fourth-tier Yeovil hastened the departure of Ronnie Moore on 31 January 2005, but Rotherham were relegated with only five wins all season. Warne was released in May 2005, having made 259 appearances for the Millers, scoring 30 goals.
His next port of call was League One side Oldham Athletic, who were managed by former Rotherham boss Ronnie Moore. As per his debut at Rotherham, Warne scored in a 2-0 win over Yeovil. Oldham challenged for the play-off spots for most of the season until a poor run of three points from their final seven games left them seven points short in tenth. At the end of the season, Moore was unexpectedly replaced by John Sheridan. Despite a poor start, Oldham went one better in 2006-07 and made the playoffs by winning their final two games. Unfortunately, Oldham lost both legs of the semi-final to lose 5-2 on aggregate to Blackpool. On a personal level, Warne had enjoyed his best season in front of goal with eleven and had won the club’s Player of the Season award at the age of 34. Surprisingly, he was released at the end of his contract and, amid interest from nearby Bradford City, eventually signed for Yeovil Town who had lost to Blackpool in the League One play-off final. He made exactly 100 appearances for Oldham, scoring 21 goals.
Yeovil had a mediocre season in 2007-08, finishing only four points clear of relegation in eighteenth. The 2008-09 season followed a similar pattern, although two points from their final five games meant a tighter two-point safety margin from relegation. During his time at the club, Warne commenced studying to become a teacher at Yeovil College. After an uneventful two seasons on the pitch, Warne returned to Rotherham on 22 July 2009 on a one-year deal after a successful trial. Rotherham were back in League Two by this time. Surprisingly, Ronnie Moore was not manager there, although he soon would be. Warne scored the winner on his debut against Accrington as Rotherham topped the table after six games. Manager Mark Robins then resigned in early September to take over at Barnsley, and Ronnie Moore returned in his place. Rotherham secured a play-off spot with a 0-0 home draw with Crewe – in the penultimate game, of course – and went to Wembley after beating Aldershot 3-0 on aggregate in the semi-final. Warne missed those games and the 3-2 defeat in the final to Dagenham & Redbridge as his career began to wind down.
In June 2010 Warne agreed a further one-year contract and made fifteen appearances as Rotherham fell away at the end of the 2010-11 season to finish two points short of the play-offs. In 2011 he qualified as a teacher by completing a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Huddersfield University and actually started to teach part-time at the town’s Thomas Rotherham College. He agreed to stay on for one more season, making just three more appearances before calling time on his playing career at the age of almost 39. During his career in professional football, he made 549 appearances, scoring 67 goals.
In May 2012 he was appointed Rotherham’s fitness coach by boss Steve Evans and in May 2013 he enjoyed a testimonial match at New York Stadium against a Rotherham Legends XI. Lightning was about to strike twice for Warne: after being part of the Rotherham side that won two successive promotions at the turn of the century, it now happened as a coach. Rotherham finished second in League Two in 2012-13, and went straight up to the Championship in 2013-14 via the play-offs. Rotherham clung to Championship survival in 2014-15 by a five-point margin before extending the safety margin to nine points in 2015-16. Evans had left in September 2015, and there began a period of managerial instability. Neil Redfearn replaced Evans but lasted only four months before being replaced himself by Neil Warnock in February 2016 for the rest of the season. During the close season of 2016, former Hibernian manager Alan Stubbs was appointed on a three-year contract. It says a lot about Warne that he kept his job throughout the constant changes in manager.
If Rotherham were hoping to achieve some stability, it was not to happen just yet. Rotherham started poorly and Stubbs was sacked on 19 October 2016 with United six points from safety at the bottom of the table. The experienced Kenny Jackett was appointed on a long-term deal two days later, but there was no change on the field. Out of the blue, Jackett resigned on 28 November 2016 after only 39 days in the job and Warne was asked to take charge while the club searched for a new manager. Rotherham were rock bottom of the Championship with one win to their name, eleven points adrift of the team above them and already looking relegation certainties. Warne won his second game, a 1-0 home victory over QPR, and went on to win three of his first eight including beating his beloved Norwich 2-1. The run took Rotherham to within nine points of safety, and Warne was appointed to the end of the season, but that was to be the high point. They picked up just one point from their next fifteen games and were effectively relegated following a 5-1 defeat by QPR in mid-March. Despite the relegation, Warne was appointed permanently on 5 March 2017 on a rolling contract, and it was simply a case of seeing the season out and rebuilding during the summer.
Rotherham eventually finished a massive 28 points short of safety. With such a dismal record, no one really knew how they would perform back in League One, and it is to Warne’s enormous credit that he not only stabilised the side, but also created a campaign that erased memories of that depressing relegation. Fourteen players left the club, and three of the first four games were lost as the new players took time to settle. Form soon picked up and Rotherham were in the top four in October. They slipped into the bottom half after a run of two points from seven games, but in December they began a run of eleven wins and three draws took them back to the top four. Warne picked up his first Manager of the Month award as a result. A 2-0 win over Bristol Rovers confirmed their play-off place, and a 4-2 aggregate win over Scunthorpe in the semi-final took the Millers to Wembley. Their opponents were Shrewsbury Town, recently beaten at Wembley by Lincoln in the Checkatrade Trophy Final, and a 2-1 win after extra-time took Rotherham back to the Championship at the first attempt. Warne was rewarded with a three-year contract.
It was some achievement in his first full season, and Warne now had the task of keeping Rotherham up. There was no major overhaul of the squad, with seven out and seven in. Although not as disastrous as 2016-17, the season was a struggle with very few wins. They kept themselves in contention until a run of four points from their final nine games brought relegation again, confirmed in the penultimate game with defeat at West Brom. There was an experience of an unwelcome kind in the FA Cup, where Rotherham went down 7-0 to Manchester City, but the main event was relegation for the second time in three seasons.
Paul Warne now has the task of taking Rotherham back up again. He has the consolation of knowing that he has done it before, and his general approach to the game means the club is in safe hands. One of the new breed of younger coaches with a focus on medical science and statistical analysis as well as tactical factors, Warne is highly regarded in the game despite those two relegations on his record. Like Danny Cowley, he believes that his players have to be amazing people and likes to lead by example. On his Twitter account, he describes himself as ‘Ex-pro footballer (very average)’, and that self-deprecation is one reason why he remains grounded and able to focus on the job in hand. He claims he never wanted the job as Rotherham manager and was happy to remain as fitness coach. However, he appears very comfortable wearing the reluctant manager mantle and will feel he still has a point to prove. That makes him a very dangerous opponent this season.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and play-offs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) July 27, 2019