ROTHERHAM United’s players ended their last season in the Championship hugging each other while the George Michael song, Faith, played in the background.
They were in the dressing room at the Hawthorns in April 2018 before their clash with West Bromwich Albion and manager Paul Warne was cranking up the team bonding.
The Millers went out, took the lead and gave the promotion-contending Baggies the scare of their lives before losing 2-1.
The result confirmed the drop but this was a relegation like no other. The travelling fans gave them a standing ovation after the final whistle. On limited resources, Rotherham had given everything to the cause. They’d scrapped in every match, fought every team and won the admiration of everyone.
Now, it’s all about to begin again. The Millers, wiser than last time and as committed as always under Warne, are back in Europe’s fifth biggest league and ready for another epic go.
After what appears to be good recruitment over the summer, they look stronger than before. Mickel Miller, Kieran Sadlier, Angus MacDonald, Wes Harding and Jamal Blackman have all come in to add to the nucleus of Championship-ready players already at the club and there will be more arrivals before the transfer window closes.
Miller and Sadlier add the pace and wing options that are so important to the manager, defenders MacDonald and Harding are proven operators at this level and loan goalkeeper Blackman is another who is no stranger to the division.
Significantly, the wingers have been signed early. There will be no repeat of last term’s 4-3-3 when Rotherham were forced into playing a system that was unfamiliar to them while they waited for Chiedozie Ogbene to arrive and blow away League One.
What impact the new recruits have had in pre-season we will never know as no spectators and a blanket media ban means nobody outside the Millers’ inner circle has yet seen them in action.
Regardless of results, the start of the campaign will be like no other. Coronavirus restrictions mean that supporters will be watching on iFollow only and the Millers will look forward to the day when AESSEAL New York Stadium is full to heaving again.
Chiedozie Ogbene has done it in League One and is capable of repeating it in the Championship
The lack of fans inside grounds may well help them away from home but Warne’s men have shown how they feed off the New York frenzy and will miss the throng at their own place.
A small bonus for the boss is that he won’t have to listen to supporters behind the dugout loudly demanding to know why he’s brought back every player for an opposition corner.
The Millers must do better on their travels than they did two years ago. Too often they played well and were in contention but returned empty-handed. They won only once, on crazy Ajayi Night at QPR, and it was the failure to hang on for away draws and sneak a victory here and there that ultimately cost them.
The financial implications of Covid-19 might mean opposing clubs spend less money than previously but the Championship remains a division of the super-rich and over-spenders. Rotherham, with the possible exception of Wycombe Wanderers, are likely to go into battle on the smallest budget again.
Wycombe, Luton Town and possibly Barnsley are the only teams with whom the Millers can compete on a relatively equal footing, Optimism is in overdrive as some supporters predict a midtable finish, yet staying up would be everything.
It does Rotherham no harm at all to have a club start 12 points behind them and fans this side of the Parkway won’t mind one bit that the team with the deduction is Sheffield Wednesday.
Back in 2018, after their titanic attempt had finished in heroic failure, the Millers were ready for a break and went away to lick their wounds.
As George Michael crooned that day at West Brom: ‘Oh, but I need some time off from that emotion. Time to pick my heart up off the floor.’
Only they didn’t need that much time at all, as it turned out, returning to the second tier at the first attempt and giving Warne his second promotion in three years.
Some of the squad did enough in that success to suggest they can mix in more elevated company
Wingers Ogbene’s scorching pace will trouble any defence, midfield youngster Ben Wiles is developing all the time and Michael Ihiekwe spent the entire campaign as a League One centre-half playing to Championship standards.
Ajayi heads a stoppage-time winner at QPR on 'Semi Night'
Six-foot-five-inch Matt Crooks scorer of 12 goals in the promotion push and was a towering, hard-running presence in midfield, able to sweep past opponents with the ball at his feet.
Having taken the number-25 shirt in a touching tribute to the late Jordan Sinnott and driven by the desire to honour the memory of his best friend, he looks like a man on a mission. Rotherham will do well to hold on to him and will be all the more dangerous for it if they do.
Centre-forward Michael Smith was superb in the Championship last time around, the extra space might suit 17-goal striker Freddie Ladapo’s talents more than the confines of League One and central defender Scott Robertson is an underrated asset.
Richard Wood is Richard Wood — 35, the skipper, the ‘Wrecking Ball’, the legend, never to be written off and the most popular Woody since the one in Toy Story. Whether he’s in the first 11 or not, the centre-half has a huge role to play.
A return for last season’s string-puller Dan Barlaser, now back at parent club Newcastle United, would be the most celebrated development of the summer.
The Millers warm up in the League Cup at Salford City this weekend and then the real stuff starts next Saturday at Wycombe, with Millwall the visitors to New York a week later.
A good start, it almost goes without saying, would be wonderful for confidence and momentum. Every point matters and every one is hard to come by.
Set-pieces are Rotherham’s strong point — no team in England scored more from them last season — and the Millers will have to be effective in that area again. Barlaser’s delivery would help while already they’re trying to develop newcomer Harding’s throw from decent to long.
At the helm of all this is Warne, the biggest character at a club big on character.
With number two Richie Barker and coach Matt Hamshaw, he has transformed the landscape since taking the hot-seat midway through the Alan Stubbs/Kenny Jackett 2017/18 season of no hope.
Rotherham will be as well prepared as they can be and better prepared than they’ve ever been.
There is pride everywhere: in the badge, in the club, in the stadium, in the team, in the fan base, in the hard yards already made and the journey yet to come. It means more to play for the Millers and support the Millers today than it ever has.
After two relegations — although the first was no fault of his own — Warne feels he has something to prove in the Championship, something to prove to himself.
There will be defeats and disappointments along the way, but players must trust in themselves, in each other, in their leader.
Once more, as a new season begins, the song of the Hawthorns rings true.
You gotta have faith.