Paul Warne interview: I fixed the coffee machine, then started fixing Derby County

Paul Warne at Derby County - Andrew Fox
Paul Warne at Derby County - Andrew Fox

It was only a few days after his appointment as Derby County’s new head coach and there was something on Paul Warne’s mind.

The coffee machine in the training ground canteen wasn’t working, and he could not understand why. Derby had a huge training complex with excellent facilities, including 17 pitches and a swimming pool, but a broken coffee machine.

“It drove me insane, it’s a massive thing,” says Warne. “There was this beautiful big coffee machine sitting there, winking at me. It was like, ‘Look at how great Derby County used to be, but we can’t afford to plug it in any more.’ My argument was either mend it, which was a colossal amount of money, or get rid of it. Don’t leave it there.

“It was no big deal but I got it mended. I’ve tried to change certain things and that was definitely an early win for me.”

Four months later, Warne has got Derby’s team functioning too, and dreaming of better days after a torrid time in the club’s recent history.

Derby were staring down the barrel at extinction last year but face West Ham in the FA Cup on Monday night on the back of a 19-match unbeaten run, with six consecutive wins.

Warne has been at the forefront of the revival and, to put it politely, he is quite a character: funny, brutally honest, inspirational and emotional. You can tell why he is so popular with staff and players.

'I love a clapping Gif'

Over the course of 70 minutes in his office at Moor Farm, Warne provides a compelling insight into his management style and methods.

“At the training ground we’ve got the ‘win wall’ and the ‘clean sheet wall’. I’ve tried to inject some colour with pictures of the lads scoring,” he says. “When they score their first goal for me, they get a mug. I did it at my previous club, it’s something quirky. At first the lads were looking at me thinking it was a bit weird, but it’s like a badge of honour.

“What’s amazing is the mugs cost £12.99 in Derbyshire. In Yorkshire they are like a fiver.

“I like to thank the players because the success is through them. To be successful you need everyone to buy in, you need them all to run through brick walls and care for each other because it’s going to take everyone.”

Warne likes to have a close relationship with his squad and points to the influence of seasoned professionals including Curtis Davies, David McGoldrick and Richard Stearman.

Derby player - Barrington Coombs/PA
Derby player - Barrington Coombs/PA

At Pride Park stadium, he has introduced a “family why wall” to the dressing room, with pictures of the players’ relatives, partners and children.

In the next few weeks, the tunnel which leads to the pitch will have photographs of the current squad to make them feel part of the journey.

“I always send texts to the players,” says Warne. “Last weekend Conor Hourihane missed a tackle, which they scored from, and he went home to his wife and said, ‘the gaffer won’t text me this weekend’.

“He was right, I didn’t text him. It’s pathetic, isn’t it? I always send out Gifs on WhatsApp, I buzz off them. I love the clapping ones.

“This is the way this generation communicates. I’m not going to send them a pigeon with a letter on their leg.”

Warne leaves the fines system to his players, and the only serious punishment he dishes out is press-ups for those who miss the target in shooting drills.

'Derby could have been a sinking mess of poo'

Before this interview, we are invited to watch an afternoon training session. The atmosphere is relaxed, yet professional, and Warne is standing next to the goal in his trademark bobble hat.

Paul Warne in a bobble hat - Mick Walker/GETTY
Paul Warne in a bobble hat - Mick Walker/GETTY

He leaves much of the coaching to his assistant Richie Barker, who secured his Pro License nearly ten years ago. First-team coach Matt Hamshaw and goalkeeping coach Andy Warrington make up the rest of the backroom staff. Warne calls them his best mates.

They were all part of Warne’s story at Rotherham, a six-year rollercoaster including three promotions to the Championship and three relegations to League One.

When the offer came in from Derby in September, he was racked with doubts.

“I’m not the most arrogant, I still suffer from imposter syndrome,” he says. “At Rotherham I’d taken on everybody, whether it was staff or players. I had a really good relationship with the owner and used to sit with him for six hours a week just chatting about the team and all that.

“It was a comfy job. I knew where I stood and what I could and couldn’t do. I had full autonomy. I didn’t know if our skills as a group were transferable to another club.

“You know how sensitive footballers are, you could lose two or three of them in the first couple of meetings and it’s hard to get them back.

“You have to win over the fanbase. I have to accept the fact I am Marmite: some people like my interviews and some people don’t like me being honest or trying to be funny. I can’t help it, I just turn into Chandler out of Friends when I get interviewed.

“It could have been an absolute stinking mess of poo. You just don’t know. But I also knew that if I didn’t take this opportunity, in two months’ time I might regret it.”

'There was a lot of mental scarring'

Warne inherited a club which needed a lift. Relegated to League One, Derby were in administration last season for nine months, sustaining a 21-point deduction for breaching financial rules. In July, they were sold to local businessman and Derby fan David Clowes.

“I felt there was a bit of PTSD knocking about,” says Warne. “Every day the staff were coming in and didn’t know whether they’re losing their jobs. I remember speaking to one of the cooks on my first day and she was saying it was really tense and stressful.

“I just sensed that everyone felt vulnerable and even though the club had been saved I don’t think they fully believed it. There was still a lot of mental scarring.”

The mood is now transformed, and Warne’s positive mindset has been significant. Derby’s dramatic late win at Port Vale on Tuesday continued the excellent run and keeps them fourth in League One. Warne rewarded his players with three days off.

Now 49, he readily admits management was never the plan. A hard-working midfielder in his playing days, spending the majority of his career at Rotherham, he is also a qualified teacher, having graduating from Nottingham University with a sports science & business degree.

His heroes are perhaps unconventional: Russell Slade, his manager at Yeovil, Neil Warnock and Pittsburgh Steelers’s head coach Mike Tomlin.

“Football has definitely changed. I don’t think I could have managed in the 80s or 90s,” he says. “I wasn’t that character to shout and scream, grab people by the throat and all that macho bulls--t. It’s just a nicer workplace than it used to be. If someone has a kid, we’d probably all now buy the person a gift.

“We just simplify the game as much as we can and try and get the ball to the best players and let them create something.

“Winning is hard work. I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but it is. We haven’t done anything amazing but collectively the team has done really well.”

'Losing to a Premier League team is no failure'

The visit of West Ham on Monday offers a chance to continue the feelgood factor.

West Ham have struggled in the Premier League this season, and are in a relegation battle, so does Warne view this as a brilliant opportunity for an upset?

“I want to win and the owner to have a great night, but I’m more concerned about the performance, because it’s good habits,” he says. “Whatever happens, I have to take it into the next league game. It’s a nice distraction but if we lose it’s not a season killer.

“I don’t regard a League One team losing to a Premier League team as a failure. I regard it as failure if they significantly underperform.

“When we played Man City [at Rotherham], we lost 7-0, and the nicest gesture I’ve ever seen happened that day. The fourth official came up to me in the 88th minute, and they normally go, ‘There’s eight minutes,’ or whatever. He said: ‘There’s no extra time.’ I literally hugged him and kissed him on the head.”