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Rotherham United: Warnock, Evans, Warne and a bunch of ‘d*ckhead’ journalists ... my four years covering the Millers

Neil Warnock and I got along really well
Neil Warnock and I got along really well
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Neil Warnock was right by my side, but I still rang him on his mobile.

He was manager of Rotherham United at the time and we were sat together at the club’s Roundwood training complex before a press conference.

The chairman was always good company

The chairman was always good company

He’d just shown me his phone contacts. Any reporter who had ever crossed him was in there, listed as ‘D*ckhead’. There wasn’t just ‘D*ckhead 1’ and ‘D*ckhead 2’ either. There were an awful lot of them.

He couldn’t even remember who they all were. His theory was, if a ‘D*ckhead’ came calling, they’d be told anything that wasn’t true to repay them for past transgressions. “Warnock in talks with Real Madrid,” he grinned.

Suddenly fearing for my own status, I called him there and then and can barely describe the relief I felt when ‘Paul Davis’ flashed up on his screen.

Warnock’s 16-match reign was the craziest spell of my four years covering the Millers. He texted me on the day he took the job, before he went on to inspire the 2016 Championship survival miracle.

Evans could be a dream, he could be a nightmare. Sometimes both in the same day

Paul Davis

“You’ll enjoy the next 12 weeks, Son,” he wrote. He wasn’t wrong there, as wins over Brentford, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town, Leeds United, MK Dons and that famous 3-3 added-time comeback against Derby County soon followed.

The Old Master was a genuis in every aspect of the job. I remember coming away from his media get-together before the Owls derby at Hillsborough thinking he’d not said much, then smiling to myself while transcribing his words as I realised he’d quietly dropped a bomb into every sentence.

My time had begun when Steve Evans was in charge. Everyone should work with someone like Evans at least once in their lives. I’m just not sure for how long.

The May 2014 Wembley League One Play-off Final win over Leyton Orient was the first match I covered and, with my marriage breaking up after 18 years and my personal life in crisis, I threw myself into the job.

Steve Evans and I were fine after a bad start

Steve Evans and I were fine after a bad start

By the time Championship opening day at Derby County in August came around, I was banned.

Press conferences were a no-go and Evans was refusing to speak to me. Radio Sheffield and the Yorkshire Post were also deemed guilty of their own offences and the manager made it clear he wasn’t entering the iPro Stadium media station while any of us were in there.

My crime had been to tweet Wednesday’s interest in Rotherham target Stevie May before anyone else had.

With the help of the club, the stand-off was resolved within a couple of weeks. “Just keep turning up and showing him you’re a decent bloke and it will all be fine.” For the first but not the last time, Millers media chief Matt Young was giving me good advice.

You can't beat pomotion eh, Richard Wood?

You can't beat pomotion eh, Richard Wood?

Evans and I went on to enjoy a warm relationship. He could be a dream, he could be nightmare. Sometimes both in the same day, sometimes both in the same phone call. He knew that better than anybody.

“I’m good for you lads,” he used to say to the press pack. “I live life on the edge.”

Young once ejected me from a press conference, but I woudn’t have a word said against him.

Paul Warne, the manager who has just led Rotherham back to the second tier, talks constantly of ‘good human beings’, and there are none at AESSEAL New York Stadium finer than the man who quickly tired of me after a 1-0 home defeat against Newcastle United during Alan Stubbs’ spell in charge.

As Stubbs gave his version of events against the Magpies, the New York media suite was graced with my presence for less than 30 seconds before I was politely invited to leave.

Instead of leading the questions as I usually did, I slunk out, consoling myself with the fact that I might one day be a question at a Millers quiz night: ‘Who is the only reporter ever to receive his marching orders before he’d even settled in his seat?’

Or a magic hat

Or a magic hat

Young still had the class to give me a private audience with Stubbs later that same evening so I wasn’t short of quotes for the forthcoming international break. Our differences were resolved by the following day and we moved on with our friendship all the stronger for the experience.

Of all the Millers people I respect, I will miss him the most.

Neil Redfearn was next up when Evans departed after two promotions and a season of Championship safety but had been at the helm for only 21 matches when chairman Tony Stewart turned to Warnock to save the day.

Subsequent events justified the change, but I felt sorry for ‘Redders’, a thoroughly decent man and an excellent coach who paid the price as the club restructured following the Evans years.

Then Stubbs brought chaos and Dexter Blackstock to the Millers and, without an intervention this season by Warne which is up there on the Warnock scale, could have set the club back three years.

Alarm bells had rung before pre-season when he said, having arrived from two seasons in Scotland, he was equipped for the rigours of the Championship because he’d seen plenty of matches on television.

Losses didn’t appear to hurt him, although his reaction to winning was harder to gauge because there was only one victory in 14 games before Stewart had seen enough. Already it was too late to rescue the club from a return to the third tier.

When the axe fell, I texted Stubbs my best wishes for the future and heard nothing back. Then I published a leaving piece - one I stand by to this day - that was damning but fair. This time there was a childish, sarcastic response.

My opinion of managers as men tends to be informed, at least in part, by their reaction when they leave. Evans and Redfearn answered texts on the day of their departure, Warnock phoned, and I remain in touch with all three.

Kenny Jackett was a remote figure, very correct, proper and gentlemanly but totally disinterested in building personal relationships during his 39-day post-Stubbs stint. I’m still waiting on his reply.

Players have come and gone. Those who’ve made their mark on me as people include Richard Wood, Will Vaulks, David Ball, Richard O’Donnell, Lee Frecklington, Richie Smallwood, Alex Revell, Matt Derbyshire and Joe Skarz.

Wood is the one I’m closest to - although my respect for Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice volunteer Vaulks knows no bounds - as we bonded while he was studying for a journalism degree and contributing a column to the Star.

The centre-half’s copy was excellent. However, he hit deadlines in the same way he hits the net from set-pieces ... you know it’s coming, you’re just never sure when.

He provides the abiding image of my four years and, ironically, it comes from one of only two matches I missed: the skipper wearing his magic hat, complete with brick, as he lifted the League One Play-off Final trophy after last Sunday’s promotion-securing triumph over Shrewsbury Town.

My dad, a big man in my life and a big Miller, had died the Friday before, ruling out the chance for me to have two Wembley bookends to my Rotherham career.

I stuck a large photo of The Old Man on the settee and blubbed more than once as we watched the game together on TV. He agreed that the two-goal captain was Man of the Match.

Jon Taylor made me laugh during a bitter-sweet experience, donning one of said hats during the celebrations and unwittingly wearing it the wrong way round. How Warne can have Taylor in his squad yet single out Joe Mattock as the player he wouldn’t want in his quiz team is truly beyond me.

Stewart was a man I always looked forward to interviewing. The owner couldn’t have been more accommodating company or a more welcoming host at his large office at ASD Lighting on Barbot Hall Industrial Estate.

We had one disagreement, a thousand laughs and dozens of mugs of tea and chocolate biscuits.

Warne? As magic as Woody’s headgear and the main reason why Rotherham are back where they are so soon.

His off-the-record audiences, when he would hold court on all manner of topics after press conferences, were a joy to be part of. One disagreement, a million laughs, dozens of mugs of tea, no chocolate biscuits.

The Millers will be a different proposition going into the Championship under him than they were when they were ill prepared for second-tier battle with Stubbs in 2016. With Warne and Stewart, they are in good hands.

As for being kicked out of that presser on October 1 2017, by the way, I totally deserved it.

But that’s a story for another day.

Part of New York Stadium ... my name tag on my press-box seat is a little tattered after four seasons

Part of New York Stadium ... my name tag on my press-box seat is a little tattered after four seasons

Paul Warne

Paul Warne