“GO on then, show us what you can do.”
Rotherham United assistant boss Richie Barker was watching and praying as Freddie Ladapo took possession 40 yards from goal in the last minute of the Sheffield Wednesday derby at Hillsborough three weeks ago.
He muttered to himself, daring his player to deliver, and the striker didn’t let him down.
A couple of seconds later, one of the most spectacular winners in South Yorkshire derby history re-ignited the Millers’ bid for Championship survival.
Rotherham are midway through the international break — training, welcoming back injured men, re-invigorating Covid victims and gearing up for the frenetic final push of 12 matches in 37 days.
Last weekend’s win at Bristol City further boosted their prospects and has added to the optimism that this team of fighters might just defy the odds and stay in the division.
They are third-bottom in the table, three points from safety with four matches in hand on most clubs, and manager Paul Warne has already set the target.
“We need four maybe five more wins,” he said. “Considering we have won ten games from 34, for us to win more than five from the next 12 is going to be really difficult. But it is attainable.”
The boss has hope in his heart and steely realism in head. Asked if he believed his team could suddenly reel off a series of victories, he thought of the schedule of a fixture every three days and delivered his verdict.
“My honest answer is ‘no’,” he said. “Playing games back to back to back to back is very hard for us.
“There are not many teams apart from Barnsley, Watford and Norwich City who have had a large amount of consecutive wins. Cardiff City won quite a few on the spin recently but then had a bit of a dip.
“We’d love to win three or four on the spin, but we have not done that this season. I’d be stupid and naive to think we will do that now.
“As with everything in sport, we need a little bit of luck, a decision from a ref here and there and to keep everyone fit to give ourselves a right chance. We will get the lads as organised and as motived as possible for April. That is going to be our destiny month.”
The Millers have given their all this season, testing most of the top sides and beating others who began the campaign with play-off pretensions. It has taken an heroic effort to be where they are because events all season have conspired against them.
They were denied certain penalties at Swansea City and QPR and at home to Cardiff while Nottingham Forest and Reading departed AESSEAL New York Stadium 1-0 victors only through offside goals.
Much more than that, they have been undone by injuries, by the weather and by Covid; particularly cruel, cutting Covid.
Chiedozie Ogbene and Clark Robertson have hardly played while Jamie Lindsay, Kieran Sadlier and Joe Mattock have all missed long stretches. Matches against Derby County, Cardiff and QPR had to be squeezed later into an already-crammed programme when rain, snow and ice hit New York and forced postponements.
Coronavirus struck twice: two call-offs and several cases in the camp in December, then three games ruled out and the squad ravaged by multiple infections earlier this month.
Covid played a part in Rotherham’s promotion in last year’s curtailed season and Covid would be the major cause if they end up being relegated in this one.
No team have been held in its grip like the Millers have in 2020/21. No side has as many matches still to play.
“I’m on record as saying I think the season should have been extended by a couple of weeks but that isn’t going to happen and what we’re left with is not an ideal situation,” Warne said.
“I’ve been saying from day one that playing three times a week in the Championship — Saturday, midweek, Saturday — is tough for us. Playing three times a week through the entirety of April — and there will be one week when it’s four times — is even tougher. You can see the injuries we’ve already had.”
Ladapo wrote himself into Rotherham folklore with that 97th-minute strike against the Owls. The rest of Warne’s men, arresting a run of five successive single-goal losses, did on that misty night in S6 what they have done all season: stepped up in a time of adversity.
In December, the boss was feeling the pressure after a losing spell and disappointing displays at Coventry City and Watford and his side demolished Bristol City in the next game.
In January, when there was a danger they might slip off the pace, they embarked on a run that brought four wins and two draws in seven outings.
This month, they came back from five successive single-goal losses to win two of their next three matches.
The battle will be won or lost in the mind as much as in the body.
“Keeping the players mentally upbeat is key,” Warne said. “You’ve got to be positive but at the same time you’ve got to be realistic and honest with them. You can’t tell them they’ve played well when they haven’t. You have to give them feedback on how they can improve.
“You want the environment to be one that they still want to come into. When you’ve got 12 games left and you’re pushing for promotion, the wheels of the bus turn themselves. The lads come in, they’re bouncing and they’re desperate for the next game.
“When every game is very tense and winning is difficult, it’s our job as a management team to try to reduce the lads’ anxiety but not to a level where their performance drops.
“You have to take the pressure out of them a little bit but you’ve also got to reinforce the fact that they have to win. That’s a really tough mix.
“Fundamentally, it’s the brain that makes people run. You can have the fittest player in pre-season and you think ‘He’s going to be unbelievable’ but when it comes to the pressure of a game or if they’ve been kicked or something, it’s the brain that tells them to keep going.
“You’ve got to keep the players in a really good state. You want them to remember who they’re playing for. Banners with pictures of our family members on them go with us to away games and we put stuff in the tunnel and things like that. I just don’t want the lads to have any regrets.”
The break has come at an ideal point. The Roundwood training ground is open again and the Millers have two weeks to regroup, refresh and wash the last traces of Covid out of their system.
“It is a big break for many reasons,” Warne said. “Coaching has been minimal since the turn of the year for many reasons: flooded pitches, frozen pitches and snow, too many matches, then players and staff self-isolating.
“The break allows us to put smiles on faces and make the lads believe in themselves. It’s just a good time to get them on the grass and train them without the worry of fatigue or of a game coming up.
“We need to get ourselves into a position where we can have players like Jamie, Chieo, Robbo and Joe coming back in to help us have a massive last push. If we are good enough, we are good enough. If we’re not, we’re not.”
Birmingham City, Coventry City and Derby County are the clubs in the immediate firing line. They are three, four and five points in front of Rotherham respectively but the Millers have those matches in hand and the Blues and Sky Blues have still to visit New York.
Warne is honest, Warne is wary: “We’re not Manchester City. When Manchester City have four games in hand, that’s likely to be ten points coming their way. For us in the Championship, we average around a point a game so four matches in hand equates to about four points.
“The battle to stay up is going to be really tight. I’d like to say I’m looking forward to it but I’m not because I will go through emotional turmoil. We will give it a right good crack and it will probably go down to the last few games.”
Survival in the second tier would be a greater achievement than either of the two League One promotions the boss has on his CV. “Colossal, to be fair,” he acknowledged.
Next up, 12 wars in 37 brutal days; the schedule from Covid hell, but at least the Millers should be fighting with virtually a full squad for the first time since the opening few days of the campaign.
They’re back on April 2 for their month of destiny.
Go on then, lads, show us what you can do.
WARNE ON A COVID SEASON
“We had a really long pre-season and then we’ve had loads of stops and starts. Now we have more than a quarter of our season to play in little more than a month. That is going to be the most intense time ever.
“We’ll be playing a game every two or three days. It’s been a surreal season. I spoke to Shauny Mac the other day and he was saying: ‘Look, Gaffer, it’s just been a joke of a season.’ He’s right. It has been.
“It’s amazing that it looks like the season is actually going to be completed. Respect there to everyone involved. I was one of those people at the start who thought that not every club would make it through. I’m delighted to have been proved wrong.
“Because of the training protocols, the lads can’t eat in the building at Roundwood and we can’t have meetings in the building.
“The players have to go back to their cars to watch clips on their phones.
“Football has probably kept many people sane this season but for the people in the game it has been tough.”
WARNE ON BEING A LEADER
“I read quite a lot of books on sports psychology. I read loads of things about winning cultures and winning mindsets.
“You have to try to keep the message the same all the time and be consistent in how you deliver it. Whether we win, lose or draw, I treat the lads the same, I always speak to them in the same way, the feedback is always given in the same way.
“You need an environment where they feel safe and they know you’re there for them and that you’re fighting with them. I personally message the lads all the time.
“Hopefully they feel our support and the support of the fans. We get a lot of supportive emails sent to the club from fans.
“There are always a few who think we should be in the top two, but I think that, generally, fans appreciate how hard it is and how hard the lads are trying.”
Fri Apr 2: Blackburn H
Mon Apr 5: Rotherham A
Sat Apr 10: Luton H
Sat Apr 17: Swansea A
Wed Apr 21: Bristol City H
Sat Apr 24: Cardiff A
Sat May 1: Bournemouth H
Sat May 8: Middlesbrough A
Fri Apr 2: Watford A
Mon Apr 5: Cardiff H
Sat Apr 10: QPR A
Sat Apr 17: Bristol City H
Tue Apr 20: Blackburn H
Sat Apr 24: Middlesbrough A
Sat May 1: Nottm Forest H
Sat May 8: Derby A
Fri Apr 2: Millwall A
Mon Apr 5: Wycombe H
Sat Apr 10: Huddersfield A
Tue Apr 13: QPR H
Thu Apr 15: Coventry H
Sun Apr 18: Birmingham H
Wed Apr 21: Middlesbrough H
Sat Apr 24: Barnsley A
Tue Apr 27: Brentford A
Sat May 1: Blackburn H
Tue May 4: Luton A
Sat May 8: Cardiff A
Fri Apr 2: Swansea H
Tue Apr 6: Brentford A
Sat Apr 10: Stoke H
Sun Apr 18: Rotherham A
Wed Apr 21: Nottm Forest H
Sat Apr 24: Derby A
Sat May 1: Cardiff H
Sat May 8: Blackburn A
Fri Apr 2: QPR A
Mon Apr 5: Bristol City H
Sat Apr 10: Bournemouth A
Thu Ap 15 Rotherham A
Sun Apr 18: Barnsley H
Wed Apr 21: Stoke A
Sat Apr 24: Preston H
Sat May 1: Huddersfield A
Sat May 8: Millwall H
*Rotherham A to be arranged
Fri Apr 2: Luton H
Mon Apr 5: Reading A
Sat Apr 10: Norwich H
Sat Apr 17: Blackburn A
Tue Apr 20: Preston A
Sat Apr 24: Birmingham H
Sat May 1: Swansea A
Sat May 8: Sheff Wed H