ROTHERHAM United began 2019 fighting for Championship survival and ended it among the front-runners pushing for promotion from League One.
In between, there were plenty of highs, lows, laughs and tears. Meanwhile, forgetful defender Joe Mattock probably enters 2020 with a wallet lighter than it was 12 months ago. The Advertiser’s
PAUL DAVIS looks back on an eventful year.
THE ball flashes past Declan Rudd. It’s hit so, so hard.
The Preston North End goalkeeper is more concerned with self-preservation than saving Will Vaulks’ free-kick thunderbolt as Rotherham United get 2019 off to a winning start.
More than 6,000 Millers fans head to the Etihad Stadium to cheer on their side in the FA Cup against the Premier League champions.
“I thought we right in the game for 12 minutes,” says manager Paul Warne, maintaining his sense of humour as Manchester City inflict a 7-0 defeat on his side.
Semi Ajayi scores Rotherham’s Goal of the Season against Leeds United and the Millers end the month one place clear of the Championship drop zone.
Damage is done, though, in the transfer window as only midfielder Matt Crooks is signed. The lack of strengthening will have a telling effect later in the campaign.
A certain left-back’s tracksuit top lies unclaimed in the AESSEAL New York Stadium media suite following a press conference. Joe Mattock is setting his tone for 2019.
Quote: “I can’t remember smacking a ball like that since I was a kid and me and my brother used to play ‘red arse’ in the back garden.” Vaulks recalls the pain he used to put sibling Ollie through.
Results: Preston H 2-1, Man City A (FA Cup) 0-7, Ipswich A 0-1, Brentford H 2-4, Leeds H 1-2.
Lots of draws, one exit. Head of recruitment Jamie Johnson pays the price for the lack of January business as the club show him the door.
The Millers are down and out at Hull City at half-time but hit back for 2-2. Sheffield Wednesday are down and out at New York in the tenth minute of stoppage time but also hit back for 2-2.
Ajayi grabs an equaliser at Reading and is about to go on an unbelievable scoring run.
Clark Robertson’s dad, Michael, is at the Madejski Stadium to watch his son, having flown from his Aberdeen home to Heathrow Airport and then travelled by train to Berkshire. Robertson Senior never misses a game, home or away.
Rotherham are unbeaten in five matches and scrapping for their lives but have slipped into the relegation places.
Quote: “I called you Steve when you rang me earlier, didn’t? Sorry about that. I’m terrible with names. My granddad is the same.” Mattock has trouble placing the Advertiser journalist he speaks to virtually every week.
Results: Millwall A 0-0, Wigan H 1-1, Hull A 2-2, Sheff Wed H 2-2, Reading A 1-1.
Wednesday March 13 dawns as an unremarkable day before exploding at Loftus Road that evening as Rotherham triumph away from home in the second tier for the first time in 1,068 days.
Ajayi heads a winner in the very last second. The world stops. Or at least it seems to. 321 away fans lose their heads and can say forever that they were there.
Chairman Tony Stewart receives his OBE the day after at Buckingham Palace, a proud occasion tinged with sadness after the sudden death of his wife, Joan.
Tony Stewart OBE
Earlier in the month, Blackburn Rovers boss Tony Mowbray embarrasses himself in the New York media room with his surly, antagonistic demeanour following his side’s 3-2 defeat.
Derby away is a horrible blip in a campaign where Rotherham are giving all they have in their bid to stay up. They’re two points from safety.
But March is all about QPR and I bump into a bunch of Millers fans at Doncaster Railway Station well after 1am as they’re clambering off the 11.33pm service from Kings Cross.
Drunk, drowsy, dreading work in the morning, but still singing Semi’s song as they take taxis back to Rotherham.
Quote: “F**k me, f**king hell, f**k me, f**king get in.” The suspended Vaulks, having been sat on the back row of the press box while doing commentary for the Millers’ iFollow service, comes f**cking flying over journalists’ heads in the front row as Ajayi’s Loftus Road decider goes in.
Results: Blackburn H 3-2, Sheff Utd A 0-2, QPR A 2-1, Norwich H 1-2, Derby A 1-6.
Michael Smith is given the only 10/10 rating of 2019 for his performance in the win over Nottingham Forest, Vaulks and Forest assistant boss Roy Keane have to be separated in the New York tunnel at half-time and Crooks, fuelled by a breakfast of black pudding, offers hope of a survival miracle as he leads a revival from 2-0 down at Stoke City.
However, Rotherham’s fate is all but sealed in the next game as they give up the lead to lose a thriller at Swansea City.
The Millers aren’t definitely down but the bodies lying on the turf at the Liberty Stadium after the final whistle tell the story.
The brave battle is mathematically over on the penultimate weekend of the season and the Millers bow out of the Championship at West Bromwich Albion.
Warne’s men go out as they’ve spent the season, fighting, fighting, fighting, and players and fans come together in emotional Hawthorns scenes. The boss is close to breaking down in his after-match press conference.
I think of the restaurant-standard catering in the plush media suites at Stoke, Swansea and West Brom that I’ve been savouring.
Then I think of next season and AFC Wimbledon, Bristol Rovers and Accrington Stanley where there aren’t even press rooms.
Warne isn’t the only one nearly in tears.
Quote: “They have been an amazing group. My life away from football hasn’t been amazing. But spending time with them is like sunshine to my soul.” Warne, knowing his poorly dad doesn’t have long to live, salutes his players at West Brom.
Results: Nott’m For H 2-1, Aston Villa H 1-2, Stoke A 2-2, Swansea A 3-4, Birmingham H 1-3, West Brom A 1-2.
Warne heads off on holiday to Dubrovnik but not before making Norwich City striker Carlton Morris his first of 12 summer signings as the 23-year-old arrives from Norwich City on a season-long loan.
Jon Taylor reveals he won’t be signing a new contract and is one of four wingers and 17 players, including loanees, who will leave between now and the start of the 2019/20 League One season.
Quote: “I can do something unbelievable and follow it up with something cr*p. That’s just the way I am. I have loved every minute of my time at Rotherham and have made friends for life.” Taylor pretty accurately sums up his three years at New York.
Result: Middlesbrough H 1-2.
‘Mr Rotherham’ has gone. Vaulks — fans’ favourite, Bluebell Wood ambassador, the epitome of what the Millers stand for under Warne — was always going to go after three memorable years.
Rotherham are paid a club-record £2.5 million with potential add-ons and the midfielder takes his Zara wardrobe, cheap aftershave, competitiveness and long throw to Cardiff City.
There’s another club record as striker Freddie Ladapo is lured from Plymouth Argyle for £400,000, Shaun MacDonald comes in from Wigan Athletic and French winger joins Les Millers after a trial at the end of the previous season.
Warne sneaks in a family break in Turkey before old and new faces report for pre-season training.
Quote: “My three years here have been like a big dipper at Blackpool, Mate. Up, down, up, down the whole time. I feel like I can hold my head high in Rotherham. I know that I gave everything I had. In the end, I got on brilliantly with the fans and they backed me.” Vaulks reflects on two relegations, one promotion and winning over the crowd after a tough first season.
The Millers are back. It’s a summer of transformation but some things never change. Mattock is still unwittingly misplacing items of clothing and accumulating fines for doing so at the club’s Roundwood training base.
Rotherham are in Germany where the training is brutal. Warne wants his suffering players running schnell and even more schnell. The Millers draw and lose. Mattock just loses. It’s his hotel key-card this time.
A friendly at Farsley Celtic is called off an hour before kick-off because the pitch is unplayable and the following evening Ajayi is the only Rotherham player to sit on the bench for the entire game at Bradford Park Avenue.
It’s the last we ever see of him in a Millers shirt as three days later he joins West Brom for an initial £1.4m.
Richard Wood and Paul Davis try to work out where Joe Mattock is at Farsley Celtic
By the end of the month, midfielders Dan Barlaser and Jamie Lindsay, full-backs Matt Olosunde and Trevor Clarke and goalkeeper Dan Iversen have signed.
Quote: “Have you seen Joe? I’ve got his bag for him.” Richard Wood stops for an interview at Farsley and is trying to locate Mattock who is heading home having left much of his gear in the away dressing room.
We’re good, we’re bad, we’re somewhere in between ... we’re good again, we’re bad again, we’re somewhere in between.
The Millers post results in the first weeks of the new League One campaign that are an indicator of what’s to come in the opening few months as a rebuilt side takes shape. There are three away wins in there. Surely the home form will quickly catch up.
The new 4-3-3 formation won’t last long if Warne get the wingers he wants before the close of the transfer window.
Warne gets the wingers.
Chiedozie Ogbene and Jake Hastie arrive, along with centre-half Adam Thompson, and the summer recruitment is complete.
There’s a sad departure. Media man Matt Young leaves for Premier League Sheffield United after a decade of exemplary service during which time he has won the respect and friendship of everyone at the club.
Quote: “The ref didn’t give it and that’s all there is to it. We move on.” Wood speak for ‘Yep, I absolutely totalled him’ as the Millers and their captain get away with a penalty-area foul at Burton Albion that bordered on ABH.
Results: Wimbledon A 2-1, Man Utd Under-21s H (EFL Trophy) 0-2, Lincoln H 0-2, Shrewsbury A (EFL Cup) 4-0, Burton A 1-0, Sheff Wed H (EFL Cup) 0-1, Tranmere H 1-1.
Warne holds his players in the dressing room at the Keepmoat Stadium for well over an hour as his team give up the lead to lose the Doncaster Rovers derby late on.
There are flashes — the 6-1 slaughter of Bolton Wanderers and Ben Wiles’ wonder-goal, the demonstration of defiance at Sunderland — but the Millers aren’t consistently firing.
Hastie is, though: three goals in his first three games.
“Too soft,” says Lindsay, fronting up after the worst 45 minutes of the season so far, the second half at Bristol Rovers.
Quote: Warne: “Joe, where was it in Turkey that I went on holiday? I can’t remember the name.” Mattock: “I think it was towards the end of June, Gaffer.”
Results: Doncaster A 1-2, Bolton H 6-1, Sunderland A 1-1, Shrewsbury H 0-0, Bristol R A 0-1.
Things are improving. Coventry City are dismantled, Blackpool beaten at Bloomfield Road and Ipswich Town don’t know what’s hit them as the Millers produce a stunning midweek performance to inflict a first Portman Road reverse on the leaders.
Tricky Trevor is up and running. After damaging his knee on the July day his transfer from Shamrock Rovers was announced, Clarke assists, earns a penalty, scores and wins the EFL Trophy tie against Doncaster for the Millers on his debut.
Two New York defeats mean there’s still trouble at home but football is put into perspective as the game against Oxford United brings a minute’s applause for season-ticket-holder Charlie Hunter — cruelly taken from us at just 16 — that is as perfect as it is poignant.
Quote: “There is nothing worse than losing a child. And at 16 ... it’s heartbreaking. I know the fact that the entire crowd gave a standing ovation won’t take away any of the pain her family are going through but I just hope it helps in some small way.” Warne feels the emotion of Charlie’s Day.
Results: Coventry H 4-0, Doncaster H (EFL Trophy) 3-2, Blackpool A 2-1, Oxford H 1-2, Ipswich A 2-0, Wycombe H 0-1.
Crooks scores what will surely be Rotherham’s Goal of the Season with a 35-yard lob at Gillingham where Warne convincingly wins the battle with his old boss, Steve Evans.
The Millers are improving and are in the play-off places for the first time. They’re even winning at home as a 1-0 New York triumph over Accrington sees them move up to sixth spot.
Mattock urgently seeks out skipper Wood who runs the players’ fines system at Roundwood. “There’s been a conspiracy,” the defender tells his captain. “Someone has taken my hat and gloves and hidden them. It’s not my fault they’re gone.”
Freddie Ladapo can't stop scoring
Ladapo is suddenly lashing them in: one goal at Maidenhead, two in the crazy comeback at MK Dons, two more against Portsmouth.
He bounces past his manager with the Man-of-the-Match award after his impact off the bench at Maidenhead’s York Road ground. “Who’s been voting for that?” asks Warne. “Your family?”
Quote: “Steve is quiet, nice guy. He’s a Rotherham fan. When I’d done the talk after the game to the lads, I let Steve speak last. It was quite emotional, to be honest.” Warne on Millers kit man Steve McVann who is working his last match at Gillingham before retiring.
Results: Gillingham A 3-0, Maidenhead A 3-1 (FA Cup), Lincoln A (EFL Trophy) 0-3, Accrington H 1-0, MK Dons A 3-2, Portsmouth A 2-3.
If you thought MK was a crazy comeback, try Solihull Moors.
1-0 down, 2-0 down, 3-0 down. With only a quarter of an hour and stoppage time remaining, the ‘Millers in FA Cup non-league shame’ headlines are ready to go.
Suddenly, 3-1, 3-2, 3-3. Now we’re in stoppage time. MICHAEL SMITH!!! 4-3.
Ladapo can’t stop scoring in the build-up to Christmas and superb results over the festive period mean Rotherham are in the top two and well set for a promotion push in the New Year.
Mattock loses something else. It’s the plot this time as he is sent off for needlessly headbutting Peterborough United’s Ivan Toney when a scintillating New York victory is already in the bag.
Meanwhile, his hat and gloves turn up exactly where he’d left them.
He’s fined. Again.
Quote: “If we continue to play like that we should be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.” Warne is loving the display against Peterborough.
Results: Solihull Moors A (FA Cup) 4-3, Rochdale H 0-1, Southend A 2-2, Fleetwood H 2-2, Shrewsbury A 2-1, Peterborough H 4-0, Blackpool H 2-1.