Rotherham United: Getting promotion ‘for the Grahams’

One of Paul Warne’s big regrets is his fear of being stripped naked stopped him fully enjoying Rotherham United’s last automatic promotion from the third tier with the supporters.

Twenty-one years on his team have the chance again tomorrow, and the manager says they will be doing it for Graham and all the Grahams around the world.

Warne calls Graham a “superfan”. He likes to have him at the Roundwood training ground, a reminder of those the Millers are doing it for. Graham will speak to the players via video before tomorrow’s game at Gillingham.

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A win guarantees promotion and if Wigan Athletic slip up at Shrewsbury Town – and the Latics are winless in their last five games – the League One title too. Any result matching Milton Keynes Dons at play-off-chasing Plymouth Argyle will send them back to the Championship.

Rotherham United celebrate being promoted after beating Brentford in 2001. Picture: Mike Cowling

Warne calls his emotional connection to his players “a strength and a weakness” and feels they have a real bond to those who follow them – up close and from afar. “Graham thoroughly enjoys watching the team and spending time with the players,” he explains. “I want the lads to appreciate all that.

“Playing football’s brilliant but when it turns into a job it’s very easy to take the fun element out and as a player, especially a lower-league player, you live from contract to contract because you think, ‘I can pay the bills for three months and then I’m out.’

“If we win (tomorrow) there’ll be about 25 of us in the dressing room and it will be amazing. However, there will be God knows how many homes in Rotherham and the Rotherham area, the London Millers, the fans we’ve got in Denmark, the fans we have randomly in Australia – it will affect loads and loads of people, it’s a massive ripple.

“We have ‘This is our why’ – a big picture we take with us with pictures of all our families because the lads just don’t play for themselves. They’re not narcissistic, egotistical ****holes.

The Rotherham United fans celebrate their side's promotion back in 2001.

“I want them to understand the importance of football, of doing your best. It’s for all your family, everybody who knows you. Your PE teacher will get a smile when he sees the centre-forward he taught has got promoted. It affects a lot of people’s lives.

“Graham, because he’s so down to earth and I can wind him up and keep telling him to pluck his nose, is at the forefront of people outside of the internal circle, and the lads can see how much it means to him.

“I know for a fact when I walk out for training he’ll be like, ‘Oh gaffer, it was brilliant on Tuesday.’ Those words off him mean a lot to me. Every player who walks past him, he’ll tell them they were great. It’s amazing how those little bits add a lot to this group.

“They all take time to speak to him, they all really like him and so they should, but he’s just a normal guy who lives in Rotherham.”

Warne closed himself off from the fans when a 2-1 victory over Brentford took the Millers up in 2001. “I remember Al (Lee) turning and shanking it from the edge of the box and thinking, ‘What is he doing?’” he recalls.

“I remember it going in and about five minutes from the end saying to a couple of the lads, ‘When the final whistle goes we’re going to get off. If not, they’re going to strip us naked – the fans will take shirts, shorts, pants, shinpads, hair, everything!’

“I said to one of the lads, ‘When we know we’re nearly at time we need to keep the ball in the bottom corner for easy access.’

“Then when the whistle blew I remember running up the tunnel, then waiting for 20 minutes because Ronnie (Moore, the manager) was milking it, being carried around – I think he was baptising kids and all sorts. I was in, showered and changed before most of the lads got back into the dressing room.

“I look back now and I regret it. Although I kept all my clothes, which was nice – and no one should see me naked – I missed the fact I wasn’t fully in it.

“If you a score goal, them five seconds after it are so amazing. A promotion is that but it lasts for 10 minutes and by the time it cools down and you’ve said well done to everyone, you get back in the dressing room and it starts again for another 10. You don’t very often in life have times when everybody’s smiling at you constantly. Even the people you think don’t like you smile at you, faking it. Everybody is beyond happy.”

He has no concerns the deflation of Tuesday, when automatic promotion could have effectively been sealed, only for Michael Ihiekwe’s 88th-minute own goal to give Sunderland a 1-1 draw, will affect them against relegation-threatened Gillingham.

“Say we had to win our last two to get promoted or into the play-offs and we conceded an 88th-minute goal I could understand why they’d be really downbeat but they’ve got another opportunity and no negative thought is going to help them now,” he says.

“It’s not like an under-8s league where we haven’t gone home with the trophy and the kids are crying in the back seat. A few of them in the shower would have been thinking, ‘If only, if only,’ but ‘if onlys’ get you nothing.”