RICHARD Wood was cradling a bottle of champagne but he wasn’t happy.
Rotherham United had just been promoted from League One and the Millers players, unable to be together because of coronavirus, were throwing an online party.
Wood was at his home near Wakefield and, urged on by his teammates taking part in the Zoom conference call, was about to crack open the celebratory bubbly.
Only the captain is a down-to-earth Tyke: a Yorkshireman with Yorkshire values and a Yorkshire way of downplaying things.
“What? In mi kitchen?” he queried in an accent that betrayed he was born and brought up in God’s own county. “It’ll go all ovver.”
That knack of spotting trouble before it happens could come in handy in the Championship during the 2020/21 campaign when the 35-year-old will be looking to add to his 150 appearances in a Millers shirt.
Just don’t bank on game number 151 coming on this weekend’s opening day.
Wood, the Wrecking Ball, the Wembley warrior, has become a Millers legend through his exploits over recent seasons yet, if history repeats itself, he may begin life at a higher level on the bench.
This is the centre-half’s seventh year at AESSEAL New York Stadium and only twice before has he made the starting line-up for the big kick-off.
“It’s what I do,” he said with a touch of matter-of-fact defiance. “I always fight my way into the team.
“I keep telling the Gaffer: I don’t start as first choice — and haven’t done for several years now — but I prove people wrong.”
Rotherham’s valiant displays the last time they were in the Championship, in 2018/19, saw them win the admiration of the division’s big guns but not enough games to stay up.
However, with a global pandemic altering football’s landscape, Wood believes that operating on finances dwarfed by many of their rivals might not be the insurmountable hindrance it was two years ago.
“There is likely to be less money in the Championship because of coronavirus,” he said. “Clubs will spend less and I hope that that narrows the gap between them and us.
“It could work to our advantage if sides are spending less money on wages and on transfer fees to bring in that better quality of player.
“We’re a very-well-run club and we’re used to having one of the smallest budgets when we’re in the Championship. Clubs who usually splash the cash might find things more difficult.
“(Chairman) Tony Stewart saved Rotherham United and will never put their future in doubt by over-spending. Team spirit and fitness will be our edge over teams if those teams can’t pay for the quality they’d normally get. I’m looking forward to a good year.”
Wood’s six-foot-three-inch frame gives him an obvious presence but his stature in the Millers camp goes far beyond his strapping physicality.
He neither seeks the limelight or needs to, having a natural, unassuming authority about him. Teammates seek him out if there are issues with management and he is the man manager Paul Warne turns to if there is an issue with players.
“The conduit,” the boss has dubbed him.
“Woody’s been pretty key,” said Warne who has masterminded two promotions in his near-four years in charge. “He is definitely a leader and leaders are a dying breed.
“Woody gives us something. I’ve always given Woody new contracts. I like him at the club. He’s brilliant for me on and off the pitch. When he plays, 99 times out of a 100 he plays well.”
Back in his kitchen, despite the promotion and champers, despite the ‘We are going up’ banner behind him and the League One runners-up trophy by his side, Captain Wood was a little on the sad side.
“I just wanted to celebrate with the lads in person,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the time we can do that properly.
“On the actual day our promotion was confirmed, the players and staff had a Zoom call. The players stayed on into the night and we had a good drink. It’s not the same talking through a laptop, though, is it? There’s not the same euphoria.”
Rotherham head into their league programme a more bonded club than they have ever been.
One of the most heartwarming developments of last season’s promotion push was how, after a stuttering start, bit by bit, game by game, team and supporters came together.
A Wembley hero, with manager Paul Warne
By the time the Millers were on the march in a 15-match spell from December to March that brought only one defeat and underpinned their rise to the second tier, they were an irresistible mix of heaving bedlam off the pitch and hard-running bullying on it.
“The connection with fans is massive,” Wood said. “It definitely helps.
“We do a lot of community and schools work. When fans see a player in the street, the player will always say ‘Hello’. We’re all just normal people; nice fellas. It’s a good dressing room. It’s a great club to be involved with.”
The defender is in the winter of his career but determined to enjoy the sunshine for as long as he can. He has racked 522 appearances since his debut as a 17-year-old with Sheffield Wednesday in 2003 and wants to pass 600 before Father Time shows him the red card.
Having joined Rotherham from Charlton Athletic in the summer of 2014, he hardly played for two seasons, shunned and loaned out by Steve Evans and Neil Redfearn, before being reintroduced and reinvigorated by Neil Warnock during the Championship survival miracle of 2016.
Alan Stubbs, a central defender in his own playing days, should have known better than to exile him from the squad entirely. Kenny Jackett brought Wood straight into the side, Warne chose him for his first game in charge in December 2017 and the player has spent much of every season since in the starting 11.
Ironically, one of his two opening-day cameos came during Stubbs’ reign when he was selected for the 2-2 home draw with Wolves then blamed for a 3-0 defeat at Aston Villa and not seen again until Jackett’s arrival. The other came in the 5-1 Championship reality check at Brentford in August 2018 after Warne’s first promotion.
The first day of last season saw him among the substitutes as Michael Ihiekwe and Clark Robertson were paired in the 2-1 victory at AFC Wimbledon. By October he was a fixture in the side that had risen to second spot in League One when Covid-19 ended the third-tier schedule after 35 of 44 games in March.
Wood makes the most of his strengths, works round his limitations and keeps a dead-eyed focus on his game, not piqued by praise or cowed by criticism.
“I know what I bring to the team,” he once quietly told me in 2018, a few weeks before becoming the two-goal match-winner in the League One Play-off Final against Shrewsbury Town and sealing his status in Millers folklore.
Two years on, he’s ready for another taste of the Championship.
“I can’t wait for the league season to start,” he said. “I think we will be in a better situation than last time. I think the Gaffer is more experienced. He knows what he needs.
“With an extended pre-season, we’re definitely fit. We need to be the fittest side in the division. I’m looking forward to going to big stadiums and playing big teams again.
“There’s more exposure for the club and the players. You want to play at the best and biggest stadiums, although I get that it might feel a bit different next season until fans are allowed back in.”
Wood, in the final year of his deal after being rewarded with an extension last season, says he has never felt fitter in all of his time at New York.
“Pre-season is hard under the Gaffer but I get through it every year,” he said. “You have butterflies in your stomach on that first day knowing what is coming: the runs and what Ross (Burbeary, head of player performance) puts on ...
“But once you’ve done it, it’s in the tank.”
Now it all comes down to opening day and Warne’s selection. “The Gaffer has to pick his 11,” the captain said. “It’s not up to me.”
Just like the player himself, the manager knows what the veteran brings to the team: inspiration, leadership, organisation, the kind of set-piece threat that saw Warne first come up with the nickname, Wrecking Ball.
Even if Wood fails to make the line-up, he’ll keep backing himself to force himself in at some stage.
Tackle anything, head everything, scared of no-one. Well, nearly no-one.
During the Zoom festivities, even in the face of mass cajoling from the men he had led to promotion, he remained dubious about uncorking the fizz.
“No,” he fretted. “T’ Missus is going to kill me if I spray it.”
* Note to concerned readers: The champagne was eventually opened and no part of Wood’s kitchen was hurt in the making of this article.
WOODY'S ROTHERHAM RECORD
2014 to present: 150 appearances, 15 goals
2014/15, Championship: eight appearances, no goals (plus ten loan games – three goals - at Crawley Town)
2015/16, Championship: 13 appearances, no goals (plus seven loan games at Fleetwood Town and seven at Chesterfield)
2016/17, Championship: 31 appearances, two goals
2017/18, League One: 42 appearances, seven goals
2018/19, Championship: 27 appearances, two goals
2019/20, League One: 28 appearances, four goals