Why Warne changed the habit of a lifetime and put his hand in his pocket for play-off Millers: Rotherham United 2 Bristol Rovers 0
This was an event that, 12 months ago, no-one could have seen coming.
Rotherham United clinching a League One play-off spot in their former fitness coach’s first full season as a manager? No, we’ll come to that shortly.
Paul “Every Pound is a Prisoner” Warne getting his wallet out.
Victory over Bristol Rovers sealed the Millers’ top-six place. Afterwards, the boss, Norfolk-born and the world’s tightest man, stunned the sporting world by announcing he was prepared to stand every one of his squad a celebratory tipple at that night’s Player of the Season bash.
“I’ve told the players I will buy them all a drink,” he said, a quiver in his voice. “That’s how crazy I am. As you well know, because I’ve embraced the Yorkshire spirit, that’s a big gesture.
“I need them to know it’s not compulsory. They don’t have to have a drink off me. They can have a drink tonight, definitely. There is some carbohydrate in lager!”
Rotherham will finish fourth unless there is a set of results and goal-difference turnaround between now and the end of the regular campaign even more unexpected than Warne’s generosity.
This time last year, they were already relegated from the Championship. The transformation the manager has wrought, turning despair into hope, changing the culture of the training ground and attitude on the pitch, restoring the pride in the badge, has been a miracle to match Neil Warnock’s 2016 survival mission.
Typically, he tried to play down his contribution. “I’ve just got a really good group: a good group of staff, a good group of players who all want to do well for the club,” he said.
“They’re trying to put smiles on people’s faces and I think they’ve achieved that. I couldn’t be prouder of the group. They’ve done really well for me.”
Yet one moment at the end of the game betrayed how much it meant to him.
He was the last man to leave the AESSEAL New York Stadium turf and, as he reached the tunnel, he raised his arms and let out a roar that was animal-like in its intensity.
One of the images of an already-remarkable season.
Warne, knowing a 23rd victory of the season would be enough to end the mathematics surrounding a top-six finish, used the impending festivities as his call to arms.
He revealed: “Before the game, I said to the lads: ‘Just imagine how it will feel tonight if you can guarantee your play-off place in your own stadium on a sunny day. You’re going to get that only if you work harder than them.’”
It wasn’t a vintage, all-action Rotherham display but, four days after a 1-0 triumph at Gillingham, they got the job done.
Michael Smith opened the scoring in the ninth minute with a stunning strike, dispossessing James Clarke on the halfway line, racing to the edge of the penalty area and dispatching a wonderful shot high into the far top corner.
After a couple of second-half scares when Byron Moore fluffed his shot and goalkeeper Marek Rodak snuffed out Kyle Bennett one on one, substitute Caolan Lavery wrapped up proceedings in the 90th minute by touching home Joe Newell’s low left-wing cross.
“I thought we looked really leggy,” Warne said. “Bristol Rovers have good attacking threats and pace and they can play. You could see which team had played in midweek and got back at three o’clock in the morning. We didn’t really fire on all cylinders at any time. The players looked goosed.”
It all got a bit tasty in the second half, although referee Andy Haines managed to miss assaults on captain Richard Wood, twice, and Palmer who sported a huge shiner at the presentation party where Will Vaulks swept the board. Rovers striker Ellis Harrison was lucky to stay on after an elbow-led challenge on the skipper.
If the Millers pair had sore heads the morning after, it might have had nothing to do with the fact it was Warne’s round.
Just a thought: the last time Rotherham played Rovers, in December, their record in their next five matches was win, draw, win, win, win. A repeat of that would mean promotion at Wembley.
Six goals in 15 starts don’t even begin to tell the Smith story.
The 6ft 4in targetman has been a tireless revelation since arriving at New York in the January transfer window.
He hasn’t had a bad game, he has led the line with strength, courage, mobility and no little class and opposition defences simply haven’t been able to handle him.
Free from Bury. Priceless to Rotherham.
Warne must be seriously considering resting the striker against possible play-off opponents Plymouth Argyle in next Saturday’s league encounter. Don’t risk injury, don’t let the Pilgrims see the juggernaut they might be coming up against.
Saturday’s goal was the best of his half-dozen. “I thought he took it too early,” his boss grinned. “I was going to shout at him. I was thinking: ‘Why’s he going to shoot from there. He’s too far ..... yessss, get in.’
“He works so hard for the team and sometimes doesn’t get the goals his play deserves. It was a great finish. A goal like that is pretty fitting to take us into the play-offs.”
Warne was a happy man at the final whistle, saying the high he would feel over the following few hours would beat anything he ever experienced as a player. There were handshakes for all his team, a chest-bang for Smith and a man-hug for Wood whose face was bathed in smiles and blood.
“Mrs Warne is coming back tonight,” said the manager, heart suddenly heavier as he contemplated being lighter in pocket later that evening.
“She might have to drive me home. I’m not a great drinker. I will have my two-drink limit, think I am really funny and then go home asleep in the car.”
Play-off qualification and Warne on the spend.
One doesn’t happen very often. The other might never happen again.