ROTHERHAM UNITED 2 LEYTON ORIENT 2, SUNDAY MAY 25 2014
(MILLERS WIN PENALTY SHOOT-OUT 4-3)
A SHOCK of blond hair led the Wembley charge.
Adam Collin had just saved the last kick of a penalty shoot-out and now his teammates were running en masse to engulf their goalkeeper.
Ben Pringle’s yellow mop got there first as the shot-stopper was bowled over by the weight of bodies and joy.
Craig Morgan came tumbling in, followed by James Tavernier, Rob Milsom, Kieran Agard, Haris Vuckic, Kari Arnason, Joe Skarz, Michael O’Connor, Richie Smallwood.
Hang on, there’s no Smallwood. Where’s Smallwood?
As the Championship-bound Rotherham United players gloried in their second promotion in two years under Steve Evans, the midfielder, a shoot-out scorer, somehow found himself 80 yards away in the other half of the pitch.
Just over an hour earlier, the dream had seemed over. Rotherham trooped in at the interval 2-0 down against Leyton Orient in the League One Play-off Final to be met by a manager who knew he had 15 minutes to save a season and was willing to tell a possible white lie.
“I don’t think either side played too well in the first half but obviously Orient got two goals,” Smallwood recalls. “They scored that wonder-goal (Moses Odubajo) to go in front. Then, very quickly afterwards, they got a tap-in at the back-post, which was a bit of a killer blow.
“Everyone was a bit down but the Gaffer did a pretty decent speech. He mentioned Sir Alex Ferguson had been in touch before the game and that’s when everyone picked up, whether we believed it or not.
“What he said worked. He got us going. He told us something along the lines of Sir Alex saying not to panic if you’re behind at half-time.
“I always believed we could come back, of course I did. It was only 2-0. The big thing was the next goal, which we got.
“2-0 can be a sticky lead. If it goes to 3-0 then we completely go, but if we get one back then Orient are wobbling.”
Smallwood, who had arrived on loan from home-town Middlesbrough in January, wasn’t playing only for the 18,000-strong contingent of Millers supporters in a crowd of 40,000-plus, he was also doing it for loved ones who’d made the five-hour trek south from Teesside.
“I had a lot of family and friends there,” he says. “I needed 20-plus tickets in the end. They all drove down or got the train down.
Adam Collin is about to be engulfed
“It’s a long way down from Middlesbrough to London. They stayed down for two nights in London and made a proper weekend of it.
The Rotherham squad had arrived in the capital themselves appropriately suited and booted.
“Everyone was really excited, but the week leading up to the final is a bit of a blur, to be honest,” Smallwood says. “One thing I do I remember is having our fittings for our Wembley suits.
“TM Lewin did them and I think we went to their shop in Meadowhall. We travelled down the day before and stayed at the Grove (the same hotel Rotherham would use in 2018). It’s a lovely place.
“On the morning of the game, obviously I was a little bit nervous. The sun was shining and I was thinking: ‘What a day for it.’ It’s a big occasion.
“If you get to play there once in your career you’re lucky. It felt a bit strange, but it goes pretty fast. Suddenly you’re on the pitch, warming up, and then it’s nearly kick-off time.
“I was really focused. You come back in after the warm-up. You’re starting to put your shinpads on and just trying to stick to your normal routine because you know it’s worked well for you during that season.”
Fast-forward to the shoot-out after the Millers had responded to Evans’ interval urging and fought back to draw 2-2.
Agard scored, Frecklington’s effort was saved, Pringle hit the net and so did Tavernier. Collin had just saved from Mathieu Baudry as a stocky figure stepped up in an all-grey kit with 36 on his back.
Seconds later, after an unerring finish at the Orient end had sent the keeper the wrong way, the orange boots were trotting back to the centre circle. His face gave nothing away but three fierce little fist pumps said everything.
5-4 Rotherham. “They are now on the brink,” shouted Sky commentator Daniel Mann and Collin didn’t let him down as he dived to his right to palm away Chris Dagnall’s last kick of the contest.
That’s when Smallwood and the Millers went their separate ways. Every player had eyes only for Collin except the one who headed off in the opposite direction.
“I don’t know why,” he grins. “I don’t think I was thinking straight at the time. I don’t think it had sunk in what we had just achieved.
“I just wanted to run towards the fans and see them. I knew my family and friends were there and I wanted to see them as well.”
Smallwood’s mum and dad were there, and so were his brother and sister. “My little nephew as well,” he says. “All my close friends, my cousins. There were about 25 people there for me. My partner was there. We’re married now but she wasn’t my wife at the time.
“I managed to see them. I’d spotted them in the warm-up so I knew where they were sitting. I just wanted to get over there as quickly as possible.
“I was on the end of the row and just shot off. I thought everyone would do that. Obviously, I got that one wrong! I think it was just me and the Gaffer who went that way!”
Half-time had changed everything.
“As well as the Gaffer speaking, the players were talking to each other about what we could improve on,” says the player, now 29, who left Rotherham for Blackburn Rovers in June 2017 but still lives in the town in Wickersley. “I think Revs was listening better than anyone!”
Ah, Alex Revell. There was nothing ambitious or brilliant about the striker’s scrappy first strike but then cometh the hour, cometh the man. Bang on 60 minutes, he scored arguably the most memorable goal in Millers history as his perfect, long-distance volley thrillingly traced the trajectory of the national stadium’s famous’ arch into the net.
“It’s probably the best goal ever scored at Wembley as well,” Smallwood says. “I was in the centre of the pitch and Revs was coming from the left. I had a decent view of it.
“I could see the goalkeeper scrambling and before you know it we’re all running towards the corner flag. As soon as it left his foot, I thought: ‘This has got a chance.’ But at first I thought: ‘What the hell’s he doing?’ We just went mad and our tails were up then.”
As the sun beat down, extra time passed in a sweaty rush and an entire campaign came down to penalties. Smallwood, having put himself in the heat of the battle for 120 minutes, now kept a calm head when emotions, like the weather, were boiling.
He uses the F word again: “I was really focused. I’ll always remember my brother saying to me before the game: ‘If there’s a penalty shoot-out, make sure you take one. You might never get another chance to score at Wembley.’
“That was in my head. I knew where I was putting it and I didn’t change my mind. There were no nerves. I was surprised because you’d expect to be nervous.
“I knew what I was doing and it was just a case of getting on with it. I didn’t look at the fans. It was at their end. It could have been an empty stadium for all I knew. It was just a relief when it went in.
“The five takers weren’t chosen before the game. The Gaffer just asked after extra time and I said: ‘I’ll have one.’ Then he put me fifth. I was just hoping I was going to get to take one.
“It was my first ever penalty and I haven’t taken one since. I’m saving the next one for Wembley again!”
The day belonged to Rotherham. The players went to the supporters. Revell hugged everyone then hugged them again and Skarz, lovely Skarz, knelt to console the inconsolable Dagnall.
Evans was all agitated, breathless delight. His tie was round his neck, off his neck, in his mouth, out of his mouth as he tried to make sense of the senseless.
The beers were flowing in the dressing room but Smallwood had to wait before he could drink to the Millers’ success.
“I got drug-tested,” he says. “The testers grabbed me as we came off the pitch so I missed what was said when everyone first got back to the dressing room.
When you’re chosen for testing, you have to go in a little meeting room before you can go back to the dressing room.
“I walked in halfway through the Gaffer’s speech. Once you’ve signed in for the test, you can go back to the dressing room so I was able to have a beer with everyone else.
“I had some water as well so I could rehydrate and give my sample. You just give it when you’re ready. It can take a while after a game for you to want to ‘go’, to be fair. Luckily, I was all right. It didn’t take me too long.”
Smallwood was always a team player but was never scared to be his own man. Just as in those ecstatic moments after Collin had lost his bearings under an avalanche of grey and glee, the evening brought another split between him and his teammates.
“I went and met my family and friends in the centre of London,” he says.
“It was a Sunday and we went to a restaurant on Leicester Square and then managed to find a club. There wasn’t a great deal open so it took us a while to find somewhere. I might have bought a bottle of champagne or two that night!”
Meanwhile, most of the other Millers partied at the Hilton Hotel next door to Wembley.
Morgan, Tavernier, Milsom, Agard, Vuckic, Arnason, Skarz, O’Connor, Smallwood.
Hang on, there’s no Smallwood. Where’s Smallwood?
ROTHERHAM (4-4-2): Collin; Tavernier, Morgan, Arnason, Skarz (Milsom 77); Agard, Frecklington, Smallwood, Pringle; Thomas (Brindley 54), Revell (Vuckic 105). Subs not used: Shearer, Davis, O’Connor, Hitchcock.
ORIENT (5-3-2): Jones; Odubajo, Cuthbert, Clarke, Baudry, Omozusi; Cox (Batt 74), Vincelot, James; Lisbie (Dagnall 76), Mooney (Lundstram 106). Subs not used: Larkins, Sawyer, Bartley, Simpson.
GOALS: Revell 55, 60 (Rotherham); Odubajo 34, Cox 39 (Orient).
REFEREE: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).
RICHIE ON HIS 2013/14 CAMPAIGN
“THE team were already quite high in the table when I came in on loan in January so I got lucky really. Thankfully we managed to keep on winning once I’d joined and we were right up there in the table.
“It even looked like we might finish in the top two at one stage but then we lost to Sheffield United’s kids 1-0 when they got a last-minute penalty at Bramall Lane to kill the dream basically.
“Having said that, they always say the best way to be promoted is through the play-offs.
“Winning at Wembley is right up there at the top in the best moments of my career. The recent promotion with Blackburn (2018) was obviously a great season but it felt different to Wembley. You just get the job done and then your season is finished.
“The play-off final has the big atmosphere, the big sense of occasion. And scoring a penalty in the shoot-out was massive as well. Wembley is a great memory for everyone.”