2022 World Cup: Rotherham United manager Paul Warne hopes mental well-being of players considered when changing schedule

No English team suffered as badly from fixture congestion last season as Rotherham United, completing their Championship relegation battle with 10 games in 28 days.

A side which prides itself on fitness looked spent at times trying to recreate its high-intensity football. The battle was lost.

Millers manager Paul Warne, who unsurprisingly looked drained too, was as concerned about the mental well-being of his coaches as the physical state of players who could at least be rotated.

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Rotherham’s problems came as a result of postponements caused by Covid-19 outbreaks and the weather creating a backlog in a season truncated by the knock-on effects of the 2020 lockdown.

Concerns: Rotherham United manager Paul Warne hopes League One and League Two clubs are consulted on the fixture list surrounding future World Cup plans. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

The threat to next term’s programme is already clear. FIFA’s controversial decision to hold a World Cup in the middle of the European season will either take players out of club football or weeks from its schedule. Warne just hopes the views of those affected are taken into account – including lower-league teams.

“I’d like to think we’d all get consulted,” he says. “I’d like to think we won’t be in the third tier next season but there’s a possibility because promotion’s difficult at the best of times.

“If we were and we lost players during the tournament it would be an absolute disaster for us because I can’t see League One and League Two fixtures going around the World Cup.

“I’d like to think if there is going to be a rearrangement and breaks it’s going to consider all four tiers.

Republic of Ireland and Rotherham United's Chiedozie Ogbene, centre, fights for the ball with Azerbaijan's Hojjat Haghverdi, left, and Gara Garayev during the World Cup 2022 group A qualifier (Picture: PA)

“A winter World Cup, I just don’t see the logic of it and I don’t think many people over here (in England) do. It’s going to cause a massive problem.”

The Premier League and Championship are on hold for a fortnight because of international football, but the break is not automatic in the divisions below. Teams in Leagues One and Two can request postponements if three players are called up by their countries at senior or under-21 level.

Such is the strength and cosmopolitanism of English football, Sheffield Wednesday were one of only four League One teams to host matches at the weekend, whilst Rotherham and Doncaster Rovers took a break because of their call-ups.

The Millers’ Chiedozie Ogbene scored his first goal for the Republic of Ireland whilst Josh Kayode found the net for their under-21s. Shane Ferguson is with Northern Ireland. Wes Harding was not called up by Jamaica this month, but was last.

TURIN, ITALY - OCTOBER 10: Federico Chiesa of Italy competes for the ball with Thibaut Courtois of Belgium during the UEFA Nations League 2021 Third Place Match on Sunday, a game that Courtois believes was unnecessary. (Picture: Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Rotherham’s game at Charlton Athletic will now be on November 2.

The expectation is that the next Premier League season will go on hold from November 12 to Boxing Day – eight days after the World Cup final – but that the season will only be extended by a week either side to compensate for six lost.

Warne believes top-flight clubs will have the resources to better deal with the short turnaround between matches but worries about the effect on the competition and its players.

“In the Premier League they have five analysts, 10 masseurs and can probably turn around games really quickly but for us it was near-on impossible,” he reflects. “We have one analyst to look at our games, a limited amount of coaches, a limited amount of players, it’s impossible to just keep going Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday.

“I worried about the mental health of my staff at one time. We had no days off for about seven weeks and we were watching games, doing press, motivating the team, looking after them, having conversations, it was a never-ending battle. The Premier League can probably throw money and more staff at it.”

But just because logistically it can be done does not mean he thinks it should be.

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was critical of the decision to play a Nations League third-place play-off on Sunday, saying: “The game against Italy was just a money game. For UEFA it was extra money and an extra game for TV.

“They don’t care about the players – they just care about their pockets. We’re not robots.”

Warne sympathises.

“That’s what irritates me when people talk about a World Cup every two years – elite players can’t keep playing every week of the year for 15 years, I don’t see how physically or mentally they can do it,” he says.

“The Premier League will feel like two leagues – the pre-World Cup league with this team at the top, a massive break and probably a transfer window which will cause absolute anarchy, then Aston Villa come back from the World Cup six points clear and all the big hitters catch them up. I just don’t think domestically that’s the best thing to do but we’re governed by FIFA and loads of people might read this and say, ‘A World Cup at that time of year would be great.’

“Personally I’m such a traditionalist I want my Panini stickers in the summer, not when it’s too cold to open the packets.”