Football: Diamonds prove a ringer's best friend

Ray Warburton will relish being an underdog when he faces Sheffield United on Sunday. By Phil Shaw
BEHIND THE image of the pampered mercenary, which all Rushden & Diamonds' players live with, Ray Warburton's appetite for the cut and thrust of competitive football is as strong as when he used to moonlight for a South Yorkshire pit team because he could not stand to sit out a Saturday afternoon.

Warburton, who will captain the Dr Martens-financed Nationwide Conference club in their third-round tie at Sheffield United on Sunday, signed as a teenager for his home-town team, Rotherham. Frustrated at failing to break into their first team, his craving for action led him to a deception that would have done Basil Fawlty proud.

"My brother played for Maltby Miners' Welfare and they asked me to turn out for them," Warburton explains sheepishly. "I used to have to report for the Rotherham game at 1.30. Then I slipped away and shot off in a car to play for the Miners.

"Afterwards, I'd stick my suit and my shirt and tie back on over muddy legs and dash back to Rotherham. I used to really enjoy it. Before that I was training hard all week and not so much as kicking a ball at the weekend."

Rotherham's manager at the time, Billy McEwan, eventually confronted him. He had it "on good authority" that he was playing for Maltby. Warburton blushes as he recounts how he insisted that someone must have mistaken his brother for him.

The charade stopped and he moved on, first to York and then Northampton. He led the Cobblers in successive Wembley play-off finals, winning one and losing the second. A year ago, soon after helping to dump West Ham from the Worthington Cup by shackling Ian Wright and John Hartson, he became the subject of an audacious offer by the Rushden manager, Brian Talbot.

Warburton's father - a Sheffield Wednesday fan - advised against the move. He had never heard of Rushden and argued that no self-respecting player willingly drops two divisions and out of the League.

"I told Dad to reserve his judgement until he saw the set-up," he says. "When he did, he couldn't believe how professional it was. Also, I was pushing 31 and the club offered me three and a half years' work. It was a good deal financially, for the security of my family, and it meant I didn't have to uproot from the area.

"I'd been at Northampton five years, played 250 games and was skipper, but I was only an average earner. After I left the chairman said they couldn't match what Rushden had offered, which made me look greedy. In fact it was also a footballing decision: I could visualise this club breaking into the League, then the play-offs and so on. I still can."

Last season, distracted by FA Cup and Trophy runs, Rushden faded away to fourth place in the Conference. They currently stand second, a point behind Yeovil with a game in hand, and Warburton is confident that a large, full-time squad can rise above the pressures of being regarded as the Manchester United of non-League football to gain promotion.

"There's no doubt that people raise their games against us. Opposing managers tell their players we're all big-time Charlies and say: `Let's shove their money back down their throats'. A couple of times, after we've lost at home, it's as though the other team have won a cup final.

"They dance around in front of their supporters and bang on our dressing- room door as they go past. We hear them screaming and singing. But it goes with the territory."

Because injury forced him out of last season's tie against Leeds - who were held 0-0 at Nene Park and trailed Rushden at Elland Road before winning 3-1 - Warburton reckons he has yet to play in a game they were not expected to win. Even in the first round against Scunthorpe, from the Second Division, the bookies made them hot favourites.

They will certainly be underdogs at Bramall Lane. Sheffield United may lie 21st in the First Division but they have been boosted by the appointment as manager of a self-confessed Blade, Neil Warnock. "For once," Warburton says, "the heat is on the other team and it'll be an adventure for us.

"It's definitely going to be harder now that Warnock's come and had a full week working on organisation and morale. And their lads will be playing to prove themselves to him. But I'm just looking forward to playing in a big stadium with perhaps 15,000 there. When there's only 800 watching, I have to really psyche myself up.

"I watched the draw `live' and I remember clenching my fist and going `Yessss' when we got United. It's only five miles from where I grew up, but I've never played there and only seen three games there. So I can't wait, especially after missing out against Leeds. I'm a bad watcher, but I enjoyed those games once I'd stopped feeling sorry for myself. It was the build-up that was the problem - the rest of the lads were buzzing because they knew they would be involved."

Which is where we came in. At least one of his old Miners' team-mates, his brother-cum-double, will be among a 40-strong family contingent (another Maltby man, David Seaman's brother Colin, is the insurance collector for Warburton's mother-in-law). It could be quite a day for rough Diamonds.