Loyalty can sometimes seem very rare when it comes to a manager in modern football, but Rotherham United’s promotion back to the Championship owes much to the faith placed in Paul Warne.
Since promoting the former player from the coaching staff to his first managerial role three-and-a-half years ago, Millers chairman Tony Stewart could have sought a different direction many a time.
He committed to the rookie boss despite being unable to turn around the fortunes of a team he picked up bottom of the Championship. When a tricky first half to the following season left their promotion prospects in League One looking bleak, the club remained loyal and were rewarded with a play-off final success at Wembley. And when a spirited team were unable to avoid another drop straight back down last season, again faith was maintained in Warne.
It turned out to be exactly the right decision as he lifted the ultimate yo-yo club to automatic promotion.
Bumpy ride to success
There were times early in the season, however, when it looked like Warne’s days might have been coming to an end. As one of pre-season favourites, three wins from the opening nine games did not represent success and doubts were raised. Warne felt the pressure after a particularly painful derby defeat to Doncaster Rovers, admitting he wouldn’t be around much longer without improvement.
Like their previous promotion campaign, things did pick up. Six wins from eight brought them into the picture but it was the run of form after Christmas that ensured they would be in prime position when the season was brought to a premature halt in March.
The biggest let-down in the opening months was home form, picking up only 12 points from a possible 30 at the New York Stadium before the festive period. Five home wins on the bounce followed as the foundation of their challenge, a run launched by a superb 4-0 win over Peterborough United in the last game of 2019. Coming straight off the back of Michael Smith’s 97th-minute winner at Shrewsbury Town on Boxing Day, it proved a far more decisive turning point than when eventual champions Coventry City were humbled by the same scoreline a couple of months earlier.
Their final match before lockdown was a defeat to Rochdale on March 7 – only their second loss since falling victim to the same opponents exactly three months earlier. With that remarkable period of form, Warne had done the business again.
Summer of change
Although they were hotly-tipped ahead of the campaign, things were far from certain after a summer of change. Relegation usually sees a host of faces move on and this was no different, with the bulk of their attacking talent moving on along with stand-outs Semi Ajayi and Will Vaulks.
Despite that money coming in, things were kept tight looking for replacements. The biggest addition was the shrewd capture of Freddie Ladapo from Plymouth Argyle, and the striker would go on to be top scorer with 14 league goals.
Perhaps the most significant additions came in the loan market, with season-long deals for two players who would excel.
Daniel Iversen joined from Leicester City as first-choice goalkeeper and the Dane proved to be one of the best stoppers in the division, while Dan Barlaser was brought in from Newcastle United to provide quality in midfield and demonstrated his Premier League-trained technical class to take the South Yorkshire side to the next level.
Finding the right formula
It took some time to settle on the best line-up. The 4-3-3 formation used in the early months saw Smith usually play as the lone front man, with Ladapo pushed out wide, and it was only in a 4-4-2 set-up that they hit top gear.
Along with both of those two, or Kyle Vassell, up top, greater danger came out wide with the emergence of Chiedozie Ogbene on one wing and the arrival of Hakeeb Adelakun, on loan from Bristol City, on the other. After much rotation in the early months, the stylish Barlaser and industrious Matt Crooks became established as the top central midfield pairing.
A defence which was the worst in the Championship the previous year was bolstered immeasurably by the form of Michael Ihiekwe, who spent much of that season on loan at Accrington Stanley yet has now developed into the rock of the team alongside captain Richard Wood.
After three promotions to the Championship in seven years, the challenge for this team now will be to finally establish themselves at that level. The nature of the season’s conclusion at least gives them a head-start on recruitment, not to mention a better chance in the current climate of landing talent that may otherwise have been out of their financial reach.
With full faith placed in Warne, they appear to be in good hands.