Michael Smith, Matt Crooks and the real Rotherham United ... the story of Millers 4 Coventry City 0

By Paul Davis | 06/10/2019

Michael Smith, Matt Crooks and the real Rotherham United ... the story of Millers 4 Coventry City 0
Penalty king Michael Smith. Pictures by Kerrie Beddows

THREE sides of the ground rose in acclaim as he left the pitch late in the second half.

It was his first start for a more than a  month, he'd given everything to Rotherham United's cause and he was shattered. His day was done.

But so, by then, was Coventry City's.

The Sky-Blues arrived as AESSEAL New York Stadium on Saturday undefeated in League One and in fourth place.

They were destroyed by a supreme team effort, some superb individual performances and one man making the most of his opportunity.

Two goals from the penalty spot, one assist, countless headers, numerous important contributions.

Michael Smith was back.

"I thought Smudge was excellent," said the manager who recalled him, Paul Warne. "He won all first contacts, which is essential because you then get people gambling off him."

Warne reacted bravely and decisively to last week's loss at Bristol Rovers. He altered the formation and Smith, benched for the last five matches despite his towering contribution in seasons past, returned to the starting 11, as did Matt Olosunde, Richard Wood and Dan Barlaser.

The boss's courage was rewarded. His side dominated from the off and never let up until the final quarter when the game was more than won.

"I was disappointed at Bristol, I've made no bones about that," said Warne. "Our second-half performance there was lack-lustre. I thought today was more like it. It was good.

"I thought we began really well. We were on the front foot, we pressed really high. We changed our system and made a few changes. In the end, we were deserved winners."

This was just one victory, but a very important victory nonetheless.

Rotherham answered questions about their character. New York was loud, supporters chanted their manager's name. There was hope, there were possibilities, excitement, a connection, red-and-white shirts everywhere. This is how a Warne side plays.

The Millers had impressed at times and stuttered at others before this contest. The result didn't lift them from 13th spot but in every other respect they moved significantly upwards.

THE GAME

Opposing boss Mark Robins was right.

"We were second best from start to finish," said the man who was once a Rotherham player and manager. "You could see their intent from the first minute."

Matt Crooks headed home a 13th-minute opener after lovely skill and a right-flank cross from Smith and just six minutes later the provider turned scorer as he was felled by Marko Marosi and picked himself up to send a penalty flying high past the visiting goalkeeper's right hand.

At the other end, Wood was playing game number 501 of his career and doing what Wood does: leading, cajoling, organising, leading, cajoling, organising.

The captain had one moment when he tried a deft dribble but quickly remembered he is more bludgeon than Beckenbauer and normal clattering service was instantly resumed.

"He loves proving me wrong," said Warne. "I'm blessed with certain players in certain areas. No-one can dispute the fact that Robbo (Clark Robertson) is a very good player but I just felt the time was right to bring Woody back."

Two-goal Matt Crooks

Opportunities mounted - three for Jake Hastie, one each for Crooks and Jamie Lindsay - before the outstanding Crooks did brilliantly 13 minutes after the break to get in between Kyle McFadzean and Marosi and was pushed over by the Coventry centre-half in the area.

Bye bye to red-carded McFadzean and bye bye Sky-Blues as Smith went low to the opposite corner this time.

The centre-foward just failed to connect with a Joe Mattock cross and Ben Wiles was denied by Marosi after a brilliant little run before Crooks, playing in a new role just behind the striker, took advantage of another defensive mix-up to poke home a 76th-minute fourth.

It was time for Smith to depart and, tired as he was, he took the long route to the dugout, walking towards the kop and then around the pitch to a tumult of applause.

Having struggled in the early-season 4-3-3 set-up, he'd just shown there is arguably no better lone targetman in the division.

"Smudge's effort to press and compete, with Crooksy around him, was hugely important," Warne said. "We played like a 4-4-1-1, a bit reminiscent of last season.

"Smudge's performance definitely deserved a couple of goals but other people were brilliant as well. I thought Jamie Lindsay was all over the park. As for Woody, nobody expects anything less from him.

"He did really well, although he was like the walking wounded at the end. Crooksy did really well too and Jake is always a threat when he's got the ball.

"Sometimes it can go wrong in football management but today it went well."

The game finished with substitute Freddie Ladapo trying his luck from an angle while, despite a late flurry, Coventry's only efforts on target had been a 53rd-minute Matt Godden shot kept out by Daniel Iversen and an Amadou Bakayoko header held by the keeper in the dying stages.

It was Rotherham's day, Smith's day, Crooks' day. Two big men making big impacts.

Crooks is known to everyone in the Millers camp as 'Tree'. By the time his second goal went in the Sky-Blues had been well and truly felled.

NEW YORK

The volume was turned up as home supporters responded to the full-on assault they were witnessing.

The stadium had been a quiet, frustrated place in the opening week of the season but the roar was back and 'Warne-iola' rang out from the North Stand as New York rediscovered itself.

"Coventry filled the away end and I always say that if the opposition bring a big following here it adds to the atmosphere," Warne said. "Everyone is up for it and it feels like a proper game.

"I thought the game was excellent because Coventry were the first team to come here who wanted to win as opposed to draw. It made it a real game.

"We could have scored more and they had chances as well. In fairness to Robbo (Robins), they hadn't lost and had been averaging two points a game so he'd got it more right than I have this season.

"The fact that they came here and wanted to play on the front foot made it a better game. There wasn't unnecessary time-wasting. It felt more like a proper afternoon at New York."

Rotherham have 15 points from their opening ten matches, the same number they'd accumulated at the corresponding stage of the 2017/18 season. And we all know what happened at the end of that year.

Smith, meanwhile, meandered self-consciously into the New York media suite and, as he always does, played everything down, allowing the fluency of his display to do most of the talking.

"I've just been concentrating on myself, keeping myself ticking over and keeping myself fit so that whenever I was called upon I was ready to slot back in," he said in his understated Geordie burr.

"I can't remember exactly when the gaffer told us I was back in but he had a conversation with us during the week and mentioned that I was in his thoughts for the weekend. It was just about training well and being ready to go. 

"The competition is fierce up top. We've got some quality strikers at the club. Hopefully I've done enough to keep my place.

"I think we set out our stall early doors. We pressed and closed them down. We knew they would come here to play. We thoroughly deserved the three points.

"I'm off the mark for the season now. I've waited ten or 11 games. Two at once is a nice feeling."

The main man had been September's forgotten man but now we were all remembering again.

Rotherham (4-4-1-1): Daniel Iversen; Matt Olosunde, Michael Ihiekwe, Richard Wood, Joe Mattock; Ben Wiles, Dan Barlaser (Shaun MacDonald 73), Jamie Lindsay, Jake Hastie (Carlton Morris 79); Matt Crooks; Michael Smith (Freddie Ladapo 83). Subs not used: Lewis Price, Billy Jones, Clark Robertson, Julien Lamy.

Coventry (4-2-1-3): Marko Marosi; Fankaty Dabo, Kyle McFadzean, Dominic Hyam, Brandon Mason; Jordan Shipley, Liam Walsh (Liam Kelly 56); Callum O'Hare; Gervane Kastaneer (Amadou Bakayoko 56), Matt Godden, Jordy Hiwula (Michael Rose 61). Subs not used: Ben Wilson, Tennai Watson, Zain Westbrooke, Sam McCallum.

Goals: Crooks 13, 76, Smith pens 19, 58 (Rotherham).

Referee: Darren Handley (Lancashire).

Attendance: 10,337 (2,567).


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