Follow every twist and turn in the life of a football manager as we go behind-the-scenes with League One’s Rotherham and Oxford to witness all the drama both on and off the pitch
7. Sunderland Or We Die
After two straight defeats at the business end of the season it feels like a do-or-die game for Oxford at home to Sunderland. The build-up to the match begins at the training ground, where groundsman/comedian Toby Rouss gives the lowdown on the mood around the club, how the players are bearing up, and then chatting with Karl about the Grand National, where his dad is a co-owner of the favourite. And while the season is very much alive, thoughts are already turning to the next campaign, and the need to organise some pre-season fixtures.
We sit on a meeting with the manager, the head of sport sciences Harry Routledge, and the director of performance Chris Neville, who for many years planned England’s World Cup and Euros campaigns. It’s an intricate jigsaw puzzle of fitness loading and game time, with Karl calling respective managers around the league – but none in League 1 – to arrange friendlies. Then, as the gloaming settles around the training ground, the manager’s thoughts turn back to Sunderland and how his team will have to experience “some dark places within them white lines” if they’re to keep their hopes of promotion alive. Onto game day and we’re with the physios as they try to get battered bodies ready for battle, including a hot stone massage for midfielder Herbie Kane and his sore back.
Then we’re with the manager in his office as he opens his mail and discusses the death threats he regularly receives as his staff watch the end of the lunchtime fixture in the Premier League. Thoughts turn to the Sunderland showdown. “If you get beat it can last for days,” says Karl, of the pain of defeat. “So it’s worth going to war for.”
With minutes to go before kick-off Herbie’s back goes again and there’s panic and more vigorous massage before Robinson sends his team out - with Kane – to face the Black Cats. With minutes to go it’s 1-1. Oxford have dominated. A point is probably a good result given the fact that all the teams around them, including Rotherham, have either lost or drawn, when suddenly the Mackems break away in the 89th minute to grab a winner.
There’s desolation in the dressing room. Robinson has to pick himself up as well as his team. “Trust in your talent and trust in each other,” he says, in an effort to reassure his team that no matter what, they’re not out of it. He finishes by saying what a dark night it will be for him.
6. No Distance Left To Run?
As Paul Warne leads his Rotherham side out at Wembley in the final of Papa John’s Trophy, a few miles away Karl Robinson is pounding the capital’s streets, still seething from Oxford’s narrow defeat to Plymouth while he completes the London Landmarks Half Marathon.
Two days later Oxford travel to Lancashire to take on relegation-threatened Morecambe, needing a victory to get their play-off bid back on track. But injuries to four key players leave Karl with a depleted squad to call upon.
Ahead of the match, Karl and his assistant manager Craig Short reminisce over the old-school simplicity of coaching during their own playing careers, before the boss delivers an impassioned pre-match speech to his squad. But is his message getting through? With Morecambe’s keeper in inspired form, Oxford find their lowly opponents are no pushovers.
Karl takes a detour to his parents’ house on his way back to Oxford and questions the mindset of the modern footballer during his post-match debrief. How can you create a team bond when your players would rather drink a protein shake than go to the pub?
5. Jordi’s Sure
Rotherham take on League Two side Sutton United in the final of the Papa John’s Trophy at Wembley, providing a welcome distraction for Paul Warne and his players, having won just one of their last five league fixtures.
On return from the international break, the week prior to the final doesn’t get off to the best start. Head of Medical Stephen Gilpin reveals that first choice goalkeeper Josh Vickers could be out for up to nine months with a hand injury.
After the team arrive in the capital for the final, Paul discusses his fears for the game and how, if they were to claim the fifth piece of silverware in their 96-year history, the feeling would be one of relief rather than joy.
Paul shows his human side when discussing which senior pros won’t make the match day squad for the final, a decision he has chewed over numerous times in his mind, and one he can relate to as a player with no-one wanting to miss out on the opportunity of being involved at Wembley.
On the day of the final, Paul delivers an emotional speech to his players in the hotel before they drive to Wembley. Will his Rotherham side handle the pressure of being favourites and lift the trophy? Time – or extra-time – will tell.
4. Perverted Therapy
Some time away from the dugout allows both Paul Warne and Karl Robinson to recalibrate during the international break as the managers oversee their sides’ contrasting results.
With Rotherham only winning one of their last five, Paul tries to grapple with his players’ poor run of form and the abuse that followed from the home supporters after a 3-0 defeat to Shrewsbury. And, as they head to the business end of the campaign, it appears the players are starting to feel the effect of having played 50 games in all competitions.
Robinson, however, is on a high after only losing three times in 13 games. Forward planning is key as the team talk logistics ahead of trips to Plymouth and Morecambe, followed by Sunderland at the Kassam Stadium, all in the space of seven days.
A trip to north Norfolk beckons for Paul and his best friend, Chief the dog. He discusses how just one day without the mental stresses and strains of football can be so uplifting for managers and players.
Sadly for Robinson, he does not get the relief of a small break. He’s representing the current crop of Oxford United staff and players at the funeral of club legend Joey Beauchamp – who tragically took his own life at his own home in February.
3. Who Are Ya, Who Are Ya, Who Are Ya?
On the eve of the last international break of the 2021/22 season, both Paul Warne and Karl Robinson were in a reflective mood, discussing their childhoods, footballing journeys and what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Paul was a late bloomer as a player who went on to make over 260 appearances for the Millers before taking on the role as fitness coach and then manager. He also used to be a school teacher – something which he credits with helping shape his managerial philosophy.
For Robinson, it was a very different path. He started coaching with Steve Heighway in Liverpool’s academy before working with former England manager Sam Allardyce at Blackburn and eventually taking over from Paul Ince at MK Dons as the youngest manager in the Football League at 29.
Paul’s journey to becoming professional footballer is an emotional one filled with highs and lows. This is mirrored in the discussion with Karl, who has to pause the conversation to do something no first-team manager wants to and deliver a crushing blow to two Oxford youngsters.
1. Millers Crossing
In the opening episode we meet Rotherham’s Paul Warne, former club legend turned fitness coach and now manager, as he prepares his team for a midweek trip to Shrewsbury.
We’re almost into March and Rotherham sit top of the table, nine points clear of second place, having lost just twice in their last 30 league games. And, even with star midfielder Dan Barlaser attending the birth of his child, Paul is contemplating resting three players with trickier tests on the horizon.
This episode goes from the manager’s office to the dressing room as Paul delivers the news to those left on the bench hours before a rallying cry to his high-flying Millers. Mic’d up on the touchline, Warne is excruciated by a goalless draw that will foreshadow a difficult run for his men.
At training the next day, Paul, his assistant manager Richie Barker and first-team coach Matthew Hamshaw reveal how all three of them struggled to sleep, what they watched on TV and how their thoughts were consumed by the previous night’s result.
Fears grow that the players are beginning to hit a wall. With a tough fixture list ahead, how many points can the Millers afford to drop?
For real football fans
Great insight into the non-PL game and two very impressive managers.
Best podcast to date
This is a must listen to especially if you want a inside listen of life inside the changing room. Exceptionally put together and covers all aspects of a truly dramatic end to the season. Paul and Karl make compelling lead characters. Can we have a second series?
Moment of Truth is one the best current podcasts
This is a gripping and compelling podcast in which every one involved left everything on the pitch.
Absolutely amazing insight into a season, both managers and both football clubs.
Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.