That tribute, those fans, that team and Richie Barker's tears as the Millers go top of League One ... the story of Oxford United 1 Rotherham United 3

By Paul Davis | 12/01/2020

That tribute, those fans, that team and Richie Barker's tears as the Millers go top of League One ... the story of Oxford United 1 Rotherham United 3
Richie Barker is moved by the support of Millers fans. Pictures by Trevor Price

A GROUP of men celebrated on the pitch and one man cried.

Rotherham United had just marched to the top of League One with a thrilling display at Oxford United.

Players and management went to the away supporters packed into a corner of the Kassam Stadium to share their success, to mark their fourth successive league triumph and sixth match without defeat.

But the Millers fans weren't singing about promotion, they were singing about Richie Barker.

The assistant boss lost his brother, Chris, over the New Year. Saturday was his first match back on duty after his younger sibling's passing.

Followers chanted his name and Barker, usually so controlled and unemotional that his colleagues joke about it, broke down.

He applauded, then he buried his head into his tracksuit top, then he sobbed, uncontrollably sobbed.

"It's the first time I've ever seen my best friend cry," manager Paul Warne said. "At the end when the fans were singing his name I was absolutely buzzing for him.

"It's been a tough day for him, a tough few days. The players really wanted to do well for him."

Barker may have cut a solitary figure on the Kassam turf but he was anything other than alone.

Meanwhile, a game had taken place. And what a game. What a Millers performance. What skill. What power. What desire.

Rotherham, right now, are tearing League One apart: eight away wins, the home form sorted, one play-off contender after another seen off by the third tier's fastest, hardest-running side.

Warne describes Oxford as the best team in the division yet the U's were utterly dismantled by the Millers' incessant first-half onslaught.

There were many other songs sung on a beautiful, bitter-sweet, brilliant, Barker afternoon.

'Say, we are top of the league. Say, we are top of the league.'

THE MATCH

Rotherham were met by locked Kassam gates when they arrived at the stadium.

It was a welcome that angered Warne and the boss used it to wind up his team who then spent the opening period smashing through every door the poor U's tried to close.

"We couldn't get into the ground," he said. "That was my team talk done. It fired the lads up a treat. The first-half performance was enough to win the game.

"We had to knock and wait for someone to come and unlock the door for us. I've never had that before in professional football. I would like to think it hadn't been done on purpose. I used it in my team talk as if it had been.

Kyle Vassell celebrates his first goal

"One of Oxford's players was saying in the programme that he thought they were the best side in the league. I read that out to the lads. That was great. That was my team talk done again."

Kyle Vassell opened the scoring with a 16th-minute tap-in after Chiedozie Ogbene's searing run and cross from the right, then bagged his fourth goal in four games with a perfect lob over Simon Eastwood following Dan Barlaser's lovely, lofted pass around the half-hour mark.

A minute before the interval, Vassell delivered an arching cross towards the back post and Richard Wood's head and magic hat did the rest.

Oxford didn't know what was hitting them or where they'd be hit next. Matt Crooks was running everywhere and winning everything, Michael Smith and Vassell were collecting all the balls up front and Ogbene was tormenting Josh Ruffels every time he ran at him. Chieo ruffles Ruffels.

Loan winger Hakeeb Adelakun, playing his first match of the season after arriving from Bristol City, showed promise and will have better days as his fitness improves.

"I thought we deserved to go in 3-0 ahead," Warne said. "We had a plan of how to play against them. We had to block inside spaces. We didn't mind defending crosses.

Richard Wood heads the third

"We were dominant in the first half. We tried to exploit the space on the counter-attack. We had pace and the two up front were really reliable.

"We knew when we won the ball back that if we picked the right pass we would, more often than not, be in. Sometimes we played down the sides, sometimes we played to the centre-forward's feet and tried to get in with the pass after that. We were a constant threat."

Oxford, to their credit, made changes and fought back well after the interval, scoring in the 71st minute through substitute Marcus Browne and forcing a fine save from Daniel Iversen through sub Nathan Holland's fierce drive.

The Millers were relieved to see Oxford's third sub, Matt Taylor, fluff two golden chances but could have added to their own tally through Vassell and sub Freddie Ladapo.

I saw Barker outside the changing room as the Rotherham camp were preparing to head home and shook hands with a strong man weakened by what he's going through.

He was still in bits, his eyes swollen and his face creased with tiredness, personal grief and team elation.

The tribute had meant everything to him, although he'd almost missed it.

"Richie is like me. He has no ego," Warne said. "As soon as the final whistle went he went straight up the tunnel.

"We got him back out again because the fans were singing his name. I've never seen him break before."

Crooks was walking gingerly, having been stamped on by Mark Sykes off the ball, but the immense Millers man could afford to smile, having trodden all over the U's throughout the contest.

And, as the fans, kept reminding everybody: 'Say, we are top of the league. Say, we are top of the league.'

Oxford had won their last seven home league games without conceding a goal and hadn't been toppled on their own soil since August 20.

"In fairness, our performance wasn't down just to a locked door!" Warne said. "We've been planning it all week, we've been working on it. 

"They did cause us problems in the second half. We rode our luck at times, defended really well at times and broke really well at times.

"I thought that if we rode the first 20 minutes of the second half their enthusiasm would wear out and that is sort of what happened in the end."

The last time Rotherham had found themselves at the summit of a table was back in August 2011 during the League Two tenure of Andy Scott.

Being top dog was a first for Warne after three years in charge but he brushed off the achievement with customary humour.

"Have I not been there before?" he queried. "I've been bottom of the division above quite a lot. That's one place higher!  Bottom of the Championship is sort of top of League One.

"It is good, Mate. Yeah, it is good. I'll enjoy the feeling tomorrow but it doesn't count for anything yet."

AWAY FOLLOWING

As good as the Millers have been recently, something had been missing from their previous two games: Barker's shorts.

Much has altered in the number two's life but some things will never change and he was bare legged in the technical area, as always. It felt good to have him back.

From the kick-off, supporters were in full voice, going through a full repertoire of songs on a day brimming with exhilaration, sadness, bonding and hope.

As goals went in so the choir grew louder, culminating in that unforgettable moment of togetherness at the end.

I'm really chuffed for Richie," Warne said. "It's a little bit of sun on a dark few days for him.

"And I'm really chuffed for all the fans who came and sang their hearts out."

'De de de de, Richie Barker.'

'Say, we are top of the league. Say, we are top of the league.'

Oxford (4-3-3): Simon Eastwood; Sam Long, Rob Dickie, Elliott Moore, Josh Ruffels; Cameron Brannagan (Nathan Holland H-T), Alex Gorrin (Marcus Browne H-T), Shandon Baptiste; Tarique Fosu-Henry, Mark Sykes, Jamie Mackie (Matt Taylor 60). Subs not used: Jack Stevens, Rob Hall, John Mousinho, Liam Kelly.

Rotherham (4-4-2): Daniel Iversen; Ben Wiles, Michael Ihiekwe, Richard Wood, Matt Olosunde; Chiedozie Ogbene, Dan Barlaser (Trevor Clarke 90+2), Matt Crooks, Hakeeb Adelakun (Jamie Lindsay 71); Kyle Vassell (Freddie Ladapo 76), Michael Smith. Subs not used: Laurence Bilboe, Juien Lamy, Jake Hastie, Josh Kayode.

Goals: Vassell 16, 32, Wood 45+1 (Rotherham); Browne 71 (Oxford).

Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).

Attendance: 8,077 (894).


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