Securing Rotherham United promotion treble the big incentive for Paul Warne

PAUL WARNE – as the Rotherham United manager invariably does – summed it up perfectly when the bitter realisation set in that his side will be back from whence they came in League One in 2021-22.

Rotherham United's Michael Smith: Expected target.
Rotherham United's Michael Smith: Expected target.

Amid the hurt and the tears of Saturday’s shattering and brutal denouement at Cardiff City which saw the Millers relegated from the Championship for the third time in five years, he also instantly smelled the coffee.

He reeled off the names of several clubs who will be in the third tier next season or might be depending on events of the following day or in the play-offs.

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The Millers chief name-checked Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe, Ipswich, Sunderland, Charlton and Portsmouth and then let out a swear word.

Rotherham United's Matt Crooks: Will be wanted.

The list of clubs underlined just what Warne’s side will be up against next season.

Of course, Warne has turned water into wine, with the Millers bouncing back twice at the first time of asking under his watch in 2017-18 and 2019-20.

As for doing it again and securing a memorable treble? That surely represents the toughest challenge of the lot and you suspect Warne knows that and here are a few reasons why.

For clubs such as Rotherham, the inevitable consequence of going down is that the ‘family silver’ often leaves.

Midfield talent: Rotherham's Ben Wiles. Picture: Tony Johnson

In the close season two years ago, it was Semi Ajayi and Will Vaulks, sold for seven-figure fees.

Other key players who were out of contract elected to leave, including four wingers in Joe Newell, Jon Taylor, Ryan Williams and Anthony Forde.

This time around, speculation will heighten regarding the futures of the club’s two leaders of the pack in the final third in attacking midfielder Matt Crooks and top-scorer Michael Smith.

At 27 and 29, respectively, both these players, integral to the Millers’ cause, will have their admirers in the Championship and know that their next contracts can help set them up for life. They are soon to enter the final year of their deals.

Rotherham United manager Paul Warne at Cardiff City reacts after his team's relegation is confirmed. Picture: Nick Potts/PA

Freddie Ladapo, who scored nine league goals in 2020-21, was also the subject of strong interest from Derby in January, while midfielder Ben Wiles – the club’s most saleable asset along with Crooks and Smith – will be a player whose name is likely to be on the radar of second-tier clubs.

The likes of Clark Robertson and Shaun MacDonald also see their deals expire, while Lewis Wing, Ryan Giles and Jamal Blackman are among five loanees who return to their parent clubs.

To all intents and purposes, it looks likely to be another summer rebuild at Rotherham, with Warne acknowledging that his dressing room ‘will not look the same next year.’

The good money that United received for Vaulks, an initial £2.1m, and Ajayi – sold for an initial £1.5m – at least helped in the last rebuilding operation. It remains to be seen what fees any of their existing players would command in a buyers’ market.

February’s scrapping of the controversial salary cap in League One – which limited clubs to spending £2.5m on playing squads – and the reverting to rules that link player-related expenditure to turnover will also enable those with bigger resources to push the boat out.

No more so than Wednesday, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Sunderland – if they do not go up.

Rotherham, who had the lowest budget in the Championship along with Wycombe in 2020-21 – are not a club in that bracket.

It will not stop the Millers being viewed as a scalp, though. They will be the ‘hunted’ in League One as opposed to the ‘hunter’ in the Championship.

Then there is Warne himself.

His club had all manner of things thrown at them in the most testing season imaginable – from Covid outbreaks to an exhaustive late-season schedule which saw them fit a quarter of a campaign into basically a month.

It was comfortably the hardest year of Warne’s tenure.

The Millers chief – who put his heart and soul into a Millers’ survival crusade which became ‘life-consuming’ in his words – admitted to being ‘emotionally beaten’ on Saturday.

He will need some time, in the next week or so, to take stock, mentally refresh and forget about football before thoughts turn to the future.

So will his staff, including valued assistant Richie Barker, who has been living in a flat in Yorkshire with his family home being in the south of England.

Warne does retain the support of his chairman Tony Stewart and the majority of the club’s fanbase to carry on.

The hope is that the 48-year-old will dust himself down in time and go again with ‘his’ club.

Deep down, he will surely not want his time at Rotherham to end on such a cruel, low note as Saturday. He and his staff do not deserve that for the way in which they have put the club in a much better place since arriving.

Many Millers fans fully appreciate that. But should the Millers start next season slowly – something which has transpired in their last two promotion years – will they be so forgiving?

Ultimately, it is purely about results for other supporters.

After seeing his side go down at West Brom just over two years ago, Warne commented: “People in the pub just remember where we have finished and unfortunately, we finished below where we needed to.”

Even accounting for the goodwill Warne has received following this latest relegation, unfortunate in many respects, a number of followers will feel that way now – rightly or wrongly.

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