Paul Warne admits his Rotherham United side will go into Sunday’s League One play-off final at Wembley as underdogs after hailing the “pretty phenomenal” job done by his old pal, and Millers legend, Paul Hurst at Shrewsbury.
The two ex-Millers teammates will lead out their sides at Wembley with a place in the Championship at stake, and likely a chuckle about old times.
Hurst spent 16 years at Rotherham to cement his place in the club’s history and Warne, the former fitness coach turned manager, may have already done so too. Leading the club - his club - back into the Championship, at the first time of asking, would only enhance his reputation around the AESSEAL New York Stadium and beyond.
He knows it won’t be easy. Shrewsbury, with ambitions more geared towards surviving in League One, rather than thriving, were the only team to threaten the league dominance of Blackburn and eventual champions Wigan, and finished eight points ahead of Warne’s Millers in third.
Hurst’s men suffered Wembley heartbreak in the final of the Checkatrade Trophy, losing against the odds to League Two Lincoln City. And although some will accuse the Millers manager of kicking off the mind-games before the big day, Warne concedes the Shrews are fancied to make it count this time around.
“They are massive favourites,” Warne admitted.
“They have had more rest, they won more points. What Hursty has done there is pretty phenomenal. We’ve had some good games and really big wins but he has consistently done well. They spent 200-odd days in the top two so if anyone deserved to be in the play-offs, they did.”
But on Sunday, with the prize at stake expected to crank up the temperature and atmosphere a few more notches, they will walk out at Wembley as equals.
As the third and fourth best sides in the division, it feels a justified play-off final match up and both teams were good value for their semi-final victories too, the Millers overcoming Scunthorpe United over two legs to book their chance to tame the Shrews, who beat Charlton 1-0 twice in the space of 72 hours.
In a touching gesture, Warne will invite injured striker Jamie Proctor - who damaged cruciate ligaments in August against Charlton and missed the rest of the season - to lead out the Millers at Wembley... an action which perhaps sums up the tight-knit approach to management that Warne has taken since his club suffered relegation just over a year ago.
“My lads are an amazing group,” he said.
“I am more a humanist than a football coach. We wanted to put a group together that wanted to be together, that enjoyed being together.
“They are definitely that. They put their bodies on the line for each other. They are an impressive bunch. They want to win for each other.”
On Sunday, and against a friend-turned-foe for the afternoon, he puts that philosophy to the test.
n Rotherham have been allocated 25,000 tickets for Wembley, although none are available via the club shop. They are being sold online at www.seetickets.com/go/rotherhamunited or by phone on 0871 620 4024 (calls cost 13p per minute and standard network changes apply).