MILLERS 3 PRESTON 1, THURSDAY MAY 15 2014
ROTHERHAM United’s scorer raced across the pitch and threw himself full pelt into the arms of a bloke around pensionable age.
Lee Frecklington had just put the Millers in front in the second leg of the League One play-off semi-final and there was pandemonium as New York Stadium came close to bursting at the seams.
Rotherham were heading to Wembley, they were heading for a second successive promotion, they were heading for the Championship. Frecks was just heading goals.
His 16-yard effort against Preston North End flew in right in front of the North Stand and now the midfielder, all tousled, hair, red cheeks and screaming delight, was sprinting at top speed in the direction of physio Denis Circuit.
Circuit was due to retire. This campaign would be his last complete season and Thursday May 15 2014 was set to be his final home match in full-time employment.
He was also the only reason Frecks — Mr Reliable, Mr Popular, the favourite of the fans — was on the pitch in the first place.
“I’d suffered an injury in the first leg (1-1 draw at Deepdale) on the Saturday before,” Frecklington recalls. “I went through on the goalkeeper, collided with him and came out with a bruised kneecap. It was a pretty sore one.
“I spent all the next week with Denis trying to get myself on the pitch on Thursday night.
“I was living in Bawtry at the time and I drove in really early every morning for treatment. It was really intensive. We were doing everything we possibly could to try to make sure I was fit.
“I was in early at our Roundwood training ground and stayed until late in the day just basically getting treatment and doing everything I was told. It was a game I desperately didn’t want to miss.
“I went in on the morning of the game to have some sort of fitness test to see if I was going to be all right. If there was any chance of me being able to play, I was going to play.
“I said that morning ‘I’m fine, I want to play’ and thankfully Steve Evans, the gaffer then, put me in.
“Den strapped me up, I got out there and we managed to win. I needed pain-killers to play and my knee hurt afterwards but it was all worth it.
“I’d spent that much time with him during the week that I told him: ‘If I score I’m coming over to you.’”
New York was a hothouse that balmy, barmy spring evening. Demand for tickets was so great that Preston were allocated only half of the away end and Millers fans turned up the volume on all four sides of the ground which, back then, had been open for only two years.
“It was one of the best atmospheres I can remember playing in at New York,” says Frecklington who went on to play for three seasons in the second tier with Rotherham after a penalty-shootout win in the ensuing play-off final over Leyton Orient.
“It was probably the biggest game at New York up to that time. It was the chance to go to Wembley.
“The fans all knew, the players knew, everybody knew it was such a massive game. The Sky cameras were there as well, which built it up even more.
“There was so much riding on the game that you could feel the nervous tension and energy. That’s what made it such a special night.
“When things are going well and you’re getting what you want and you know you’re on your way to Wembley, it creates such an amazing atmosphere. We won and the rest is history.”
Frecks scores and runs towards the physio
Happily, when Frecklington’s squat, muscular frame landed full square in Circuit’s midriff, the physio, despite his age and slender build, stood up to it better than the Preston defence.
“I don’t think he really wanted any attention,” the player grins. “I scored the goal and straightaway remembered ‘It’s Denis Circuit Time’. I ran over to him, he got his moment on Sky and everyone seemed to enjoy it.”
At first, though, it looked as if the pair’s Roundwood regime had been in vain.
“I remember going 1-0 down,” Frecklington says. “I was stood in the wall for (Paul) Gallagher’s free-kick. As it’s gone over my head, I’ve turned round and seen it miss everyone and go in the net.
“I’m thinking: ‘Oh God, it’s one of them goals.’ It wasn’t a great start and you start thinking that maybe it’s not going to be our night.”
But the Millers couldn’t be stopped that season and neither could their talisman who, at the age of 28, had been too much to handle for every opposition central midfielder in the division.
Soon after North End’s 16th-minute opener, Wes Thomas equalised and then, in the 34th minute, came Frecklington’s moment.
“It was similar to Wes’s goal,” he recalls. “Ben Pringle had the ball on the left and, with Ben’s left foot, you know that he’s going to whip a great ball in. He did it all the time. As the manager always said, if you want to score, you’ve got to get in the box.
“Luckily, the ball landed on my head and I managed to get it in off the post. That was it. We were ahead in the tie and on our way to Wembley.”
Frecklington is a Millers legend almost as much for his attitude and humility as he is for his 186 all-action appearances and 34 goals.
He downplays the quality of his bullet strike before opening up with a bit of prompting.
“Yeah all right, It was one of my best ever headers,” he concedes. “I was just inside the 18-yard line, caught it well and put it right in the corner.
“It was nice that it was in front of the North Stand as well. I used to love shooting that way. I seemed to score more of my goals going towards that end and the team seemed to score more as well. The fans seemed to suck the ball in.”
Header, post, the rippling net. ‘Can you remember anything else?’ I ask?
“Yeah,” he replies. “New York Stadium just erupts.”
Kieran Agard added the third goal in the 67th minute and the party truly began.
“That’s when everyone knew the game was over and we were just waiting for that final whistle,” says the midfield man who is now with home-town club Lincoln City. “I clearly recall the emotion of the final whistle and everyone just going mad thinking: ‘We’re off to Wembley.’
“The euphoria around that is what you play football for. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my career.
“There’s a brilliant picture of Denis holding me after I’ve jumped on to him. I’ve still got it somewhere.
“I did land on him a bit hard, I suppose, but thankfully he was all right and he managed to top off his last full season at Wembley, which was a fitting send-off for the wonderful job that he did.”
Something in that iconic run to his friend defines what the player was all about during his five-plus years at Rotherham from late 2012 to early 2018.
“Denis is a really nice, modest man,” says a really nice, modest hero.
FRECKS ON PRESTON
“Preston were a really good team. They had a lot of players who’d played at a higher level or would go on to do that.
“They were a big club and we’d only just come up from League Two.
“It was a massive achievement for us to beat them over two legs because they were possibly the best team in the league that year; or at least the biggest team, after Wolves.
FRECKS ON THAT SEASON
“It was one of the best seasons of my career. It was my best goalscoring wise. I think I got 13 goals from midfield and I got Player of the Year at the club.
“It was probably the time I enjoyed my football the most. It was an amazing achievement to get back-to-back promotions.
“The big thing was I managed to play well over 40 games (49). It obviously helped that I suffered so few injuries and managed to be out there for so many matches.
“I was feeling good and I was in a really good place. I look back on that year really fondly.”
ROTHERHAM (4-4-2): Collin; Tavernier, Morgan Arnason, Skarz; Agard, Frecklington (Milsom 90+2), Smallwood (O’Connor 90+5), Pringle; Revell, Thomas (Vuckic 87). Subs not used: Shearer, Davis, Rowe, Hitchcock
PRESTON (5-3-2): Rudd, Wiseman (Humphrey 53), Wright, King, Clarke, Buchanan; Welsh (Brownhill 68), Gallagher (Beavon 77), Kilkenny; Davies, Garner. Subs not used: Stuckmann, Keane, Laird, Holmes.
GOALS: Thomas 24, Frecklington 34, Agard 67 (Rotherham); Gallagher 16 (Preston).
REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Hampshire).