ONE person stood on the pitch while a thousand others chanted his name.
Richie Barker cut a solitary figure at Oxford United in January yet he was anything but alone.
His younger brother had died, aged just 39, earlier that month and this was the Rotherham United assistant manager’s first match back after compassionate leave.
The players rewarded him with their performance of the season in a stunning 3-1 victory that lifted the Millers to the top of League One. The big away following rewarded him with their impromptu tribute after the final whistle.
De de de de, Richie Barker.
Barker, tough, hard, uncompromising Barker, decent, honest, straight Barker, raised his arms in acknowledgement as the support and respect rained down on the Kassam Stadium turf. And he sobbed.
This has been a campaign that brought too much heartache, too much sorrow, before it was halted in March by the coronavirus outbreak.
But in a season of tears the Millers came together in adversity as players lost loved ones and fans died tragically young. The bond between club and supporters has never been so strong.
Having played 35 of their 44 fixtures, Rotherham are in second spot and a place in the Championship will become theirs if clubs vote for no more football to be played.
Whatever decision is reach on that issue, it won’t define events of a season the like of which we are likely never to see again. This year has been all about the journey, not the destination.
Before combat began in August, boss Paul Warne warned that it would take time for everything to come together. There had been 17 departures and 12 arrivals in a summer of transformation.
No matter how much he protested, the manager knew better than anyone that, after promotion two years earlier had been followed by a heroic fight against second-tier relegation, only a play-off place would satisfy expectations.
The start was stuttering and AESSEAL New York Stadium wasn’t the place to be as games against Lincoln City, Tranmere Rovers, Shrewsbury Town and Wycombe Wanderers brought possession without penetration.
However, there were signs. Michael Ihiekwe was stepping up as the best central defender in the division and, blips at Doncaster Rovers and Bristol Rovers apart, the Millers were a growing force on the road.
Ipswich, Wednesday October 23. The weather was wild and Town walked out in top spot, unbeaten at home. 90 minutes of suffering later, they were on their knees, blown away at pissing-down Portman by gale-force visitors smashing every tackle and chasing down every ball.
A young midfielder from Newcastle United struggling to make a loan impact could make only the bench on the night Rotherham showed they could beat anybody.
Key man Michael Ihiekwe
By the time Oxford away came round on January 11, the Millers were looking for pole position themselves.
Matt Crooks had been a two-goal terror at Ipswich and now he gave the performance of his career. The home team had been League One’s best footballing side but they were overrun, overpowered and overawed by the physical might of the visitors.
What are U’s looking at? Warne’s men against Karl Robinson’s boys. 3-0 at half-time, 3-1 at full-time and ‘We are top of the league, I say we are top of the league’.
The supporters’ Kassam victory songs turned into something much more poignant at the end.
Barker, never one for fuss or slaps on the back, had already disappeared down the tunnel when Warne caught up with his great pal and told him that he might want to consider going back outside.
The number two breaking down at the fans’ show of unity became the enduring image of the season, a symbol of what the Millers had become, what they could go on to be, what they meant to each other.
I saw him afterwards outside the dressing room, sagging, exhausted, utterly spent, his face crumpled by emotion, sucking in comfort from the gesture, a broken but boosted man.
It had all started coming gloriously good around Christmas. Michael Smith headed a 97th-minute winner at Shrewsbury Town on Boxing Day, and New York bounced as Peterborough United were destroyed a few days later and Blackpool were seen off on New Year’s Day.
Ipswich copped for it again in the January 28 return match as a run of 15 league games with only one defeat was put together.
Meanwhile, that Newcastle loanee was now making his mark. Dan Barlaser was all silk, smoothness and slide-rule delivery as his probing picked the opposition apart.
‘Pump it up’ chanted supporters as promotion became an ever-increasing prospect but deadly Dan was having none of that.
He didn’t pump anything anywhere. He chose everything carefully, executed it all perfectly and became unique in football as the only midfielder whose last five letters of his surname describe the accuracy of his passing.
Behind the scenes, the group dealt with one devastating blow after another. Warne’s dad had died in the summer, Barker was grieving, Barlaser mourned two people to whom he’d been close, midfielder Jamie Linsday’s baby son was seriously ill in hospital, young Ben Wiles suffered the death of a relative, defender Adam Thompson lost his dad and Crooks’ world was turned upside down by the tragedy surrounding Jordan Sinnott.
In a season of tears, the giant midfielder cried after heading the Friday-night winner at Lincoln City and dedicating the goal to his late best mate.
Warne, wonderful, witty Warne, kept spirits high. The manager, after three and a half years in charge, still doesn’t look forward to matchdays because of the pressure of his all-consuming desire for victory, but during the week the force of his personality, depth of his leadership and detail of his and his staff’s planning is felt joyously in every corner of the Roundwood training complex.
A good human being drilled it into his band of good human beings again and again: ‘Always be the best you can be.’
Chiedozie Ogbene thrillingly became better than he thought he could be. The winger had arrived from Brentford in August with a reputation for speed but no-one anticipated just how rapidly he would take to his first prolonged taste of senior football.
He danced and sang with supporters when his flying contribution sparked a December FA Cup comeback from 3-0 down to 4-3 last-gasp victors at non-league Solihull Moors and became increasingly unplayable in the league.
Freddie Ladapo arrived for big money and repaid his £400,000 fee in goals, 17 in all, although the striker did much of his damage as a substitute and the jury is still out on whether Warne would pick him as a starter in his first-choice 11.
Back in October, New York had risen and applauded in the memory of supporter Charlie Hunter, taken cruelly early at the age of 16.
In February, it did the same for Andrew Wilson-Storey, a father-of-three in his 40s who never recovered after collapsing at the end of a last-minute triumph at Accrington Stanley.
Seeing Andrew’s family gathered on the touchline before a 1-1 draw with MK Dons moved the boss deeply and was still affecting him in his after-match press conference when he came close to breaking down.
None of us knew it at the time but there would be only one more fixture, a shock 3-1 loss at Rochdale on March 7, before Covid-19 took its terrible toll and the Millers headed into lockdown in an automatic-promotion spot.
This was a mad year, a crazy year, a year darkened by a pandemic without precedent, but one also lit up by stirring displays, by the growing closeness between supporters and a new squad, by pride in being part of Warne’s Millers and what that stands for.
The journey, not the destination.
One game will always endure.
In a season of tears, Warne said: “I’ve never seen my best friend cry before.”
De de de de, Richie Barker.