Norfolk footballing legends put Canaries’ fan Warne on the road to stardom
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Paul Warne is the Norfolk-born Norwich City fan who manages Rotherham United – here he explains how he got his big break, thanks to some of the county’s best-known footballing characters
Paul Warne got his break into football thanks to legendary names in Norfolk football – the likes of Paul Tong, Bill Punton and Bruce Cunningham.
It was Tong, then assistant manager of Great Yarmouth Town, who first spotted Warne, who nowadays, after more than 400 Football League appearances is manager of League One Rotherham United.
“As a kid I played for North Walsham, the town I grew up in,” he told the Non-League Football Paper.
“When I was about 15, Paul saw me on a Sunday morning and invited me to play on a Saturday afternoon for Great Yarmouth. Unfortunately, I had a £6-a-week evening paper round at the time. I told them I couldn’t afford to quit my round and they said ‘OK, we’ll give you £20 per game’.
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“It was about 1988 and that was an absolute fortune to me. All I needed was someone to cover my round on a Saturday. I was paid £1 a day and the lad I asked robbed me for £1.50. I was devastated. That was my first financial lesson about negotiating! I played for Great Yarmouth for a year, then the manager – Bill Punton, who used to play on the wing for Newcastle – left for Diss Town. I went with him and ended up spending about six years there.”
Warne’s biggest day out was in 1994 when Diss beat Taunton in the FA Vase final at Wembley.
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“I was at university then, living the dream,” recalled Warne. “About a stone heavier. I remember running down the wing in extra-time and I got cramp – at full pace – in both hamstrings and my groin at the same time. It was like snipers had got me from three different corners of the ground. It was turmoil!
“We went straight out in London that night. Me and my two best mates at the time didn’t get back to the hotel before the bus left the next morning. Luckily, the wife of one of the players had packed our stuff. The manager wasn’t best pleased but he couldn’t really be in a bad mood, could he? We made it back for the open-top bus, didn’t sleep, drank again.
“We got back to Diss and everyone was on the streets welcoming back the team. It was my 21st birthday. The crowds sang happy birthday to me. My mum was crying. It was the best weekend and I’ll never forget it. Amazing.”
Warne moved to Wroxham in 1996, and a year later his life changed forever. Then Wroxham manager Cunningham had recommended Warne to John Deehan, who was manager of Wigan, and he sent his team to Trafford Park for a pre-season friendly.
“It must have been six hours on a bus, so you can imagine how popular I was in that dressing room! Meanwhile, I’d been in Magaluf for two weeks with my mates. Drank too much, obviously. First half, I scored, though we were losing 2-1. Then, at half-time, one of their coaches came in and said ‘Right, get that young man in our dressing room’. I was sitting there going ‘No, gaffer, I don’t want to do it’.
“I wasn’t that confident, and I’m still not really. I was saying ‘Look, just let me stay on this side. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t’. Finally, a lad called Mark Crow, a big centre-half who used to play at Norwich, said ‘Look, Warney, get in there now or I’ll knock you out’. I went in and all their lads are looking at me.
“John Deehan was a lovely bloke. Soft spoken, never swore. He said ‘How are you doing?’ and I said ‘Alright, cheers pal’. All their lads are giggling because I didn’t call him gaffer. Then he asked if I was OK to play. I’ve got social tourettes at the best of times but especially when I’m nervous. I said ‘Yeah, I will be, but the thing is I’ve just spent two weeks in Magaluf and I’m still sweating Budweiser’. On and on, spouting rubbish. Those Wigan boys were like ‘Who the hell is this guy?’.”
Warne eventually got the right kit on and put in a suspiciously flawless display for the Latics.
“I’ll always remember the first header I went for, Crowie is going up with me shouting ‘You’ve got it, you’ve got it’. He wasn’t even challenging me. It was a complete stitch-up. I scored for Wigan and looked unbelievable. They were ploughing into every other Wigan player and I was like Moses parting the Red Sea. I came off the pitch completely embarrassed.
“I went in for a drink after the game and I had no expectations. What I thought would happen is what happens to a lot of young lads where they go ‘We really like you, we’ve got your contact details, we’ll keep an eye on you, all the best for this season, yabber, yabber’.
I went to the bar, which is great at non-league clubs. They always put decent food on because they want you to stay. The chilli at Wroxham was great, more salt than mince so you had to keep drinking. I’m tucking in when Bruce came up and said John Deehan and his assistant John Benson – who was the hardest man I ever met in football – wanted to see me outside.
“When they said ‘We want to offer you a contract’, I was absolutely dumbstruck. Even though I was 22-23, it was a Roy of the Rovers moment. All I wanted to do was tell my parents. I remember saying to them ‘Don’t judge me by that second half because the lads were helping me out’. They just laughed at me. I was buzzing.”
Warne then completed his move to Springfield Park, where he scored four goals in 56 league games before joining Rotherham in January 1999. He went on to play for Rotherham, Oldham and Yeovil before returning to Rotherham, where he has been manager in some form or another since November, 2016.