Paul Warne devising fresh new mind games for Rotherham United

A CURSORY glance at the League One table would suggest to onlookers that if there was one word to characterise Rotherham United’s season, it would be ‘successful.’

Canvass the thoughts of the club’s tight-knit group of players and staff on 2019-20 and the word they would probably use instead would be ‘emotional’.

The Millers may occupy the second automatic promotion spot in the third tier, but it only tells part of the story.

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For all the club’s commendable on-pitch achievements, this has been a season defined by its mentally challenging nature.

Rotherham United's players have endured an emtoional rollercoaster this season.

Grief was the prevailing emotion at the start of the new year as the club mourned the sudden loss of Chris Barker, younger brother of assistant-manager Richard Barker.

The similarly tragic passing of former Huddersfield Town and FC Halifax Town player Jordan Sinnott – best mate of Millers midfielder Matt Crooks and a close friend of captain Richard Wood – was also felt deeply by those in the dressing room.

News of the untimely death of lifelong Millers supporter Andrew Wilson-Storey, who collapsed while attending the club’s game at Accrington on February 22, was a further blow for the club’s players and staff.

Football’s lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic – which is affecting the daily lives of everyone in this country and beyond – represents the latest mental challenge to cope with for the Millers.

Rotherham United's manager Paul Warne is planning ahead.

Given all the context, it is easy to see why manager Paul Warne believes that keeping his players mentally fresh represents his biggest task in the weeks and possibly months ahead.

Warne, whose players are following fitness programmes at home, said: “We gave the players close-season programmes last June and if the season drags onto this June and July, it will be a monumental one.

“We have had quite an emotional season as it is for the lads. I have no issue with keeping them physically fit; I trust them implicitly and have no issue with giving them a few weeks off and going away with programmes.

“It will be absolutely fine. They know how much we ask of them physically and if they come back in bad shape, they won’t kick a ball for us. They know that.

“But it is more about getting through this with the least amount of interruption to their family lives.

“There will be the ones with young kids who aren’t at school and it will be hard – and I hope they get through with all their families happy and healthy as I don’t want more bad news.”

Footballers, more than those in many other professions, are governed by – and indeed crave – structure.

Weekly life revolves around a cycle of training, playing games and rest, with the disruption caused by football’s shutdown having knocked everything out of kilter, with players forced to come to terms with a strange new – and hopefully temporary – reality.

Warne continued: “Being a footballer, even in your first week of pre-season, you know you have got a target – just get to Friday and not be injured.

“Then you will know you have got a game at the end of the week and then the next week, there might be 60 minutes on a Tuesday night. You have always got targets but, at the moment, you haven’t.

“Now it is like being at a soccer camp when you are 11 and you train and your mum gives you sandwiches every dinner time and all that. You haven’t actually got a target and that’s the hardest thing.

“It is a surreal thing for everybody, fans included.

“For players and staff, it is something we have never experienced before and we are not prepared for it.”

An avid reader of books relating to the psychology of sport, Warne acknowledges that thinking outside of the box in order to try and keep his players mentally fresh in the weeks ahead will assume importance.

Expect a little bit of light relief to be thrown in along the way.

“I’ll definitely think of some comedic things to do with them,” Warne added.

“Sometimes, it is like managing children at school and sometimes, you need to come in and say: ‘we need to put a video on, happy days, get some popcorn.’

“I am not saying we are going to do that, but sometimes you just do something light and different with them.

“So we will mix up training, for sure. We are going to have to because as coaches and members of staff, we need to keep energised by the whole thing.

“We are also trying to do things for the fans and season ticket holders and send video messages where we can. We are trying to keep the community upbeat, but it is difficult for a lot of people.”