Can Rotherham United pull off a second Championship survival act?

“I HATE to say it but that's what we're up against at Championship level.”
Rotherham United's Fred Onyedinma is wrongly sent off against Blackburn Rovers and it isn't the only time they suffered at the hands of referees this season. Picture: Jim BrailsfordRotherham United's Fred Onyedinma is wrongly sent off against Blackburn Rovers and it isn't the only time they suffered at the hands of referees this season. Picture: Jim Brailsford
Rotherham United's Fred Onyedinma is wrongly sent off against Blackburn Rovers and it isn't the only time they suffered at the hands of referees this season. Picture: Jim Brailsford

Matt Taylor was responding pragmatically to a press-conference question earlier this month about what his response was to Rotherham United fans surveying their team's position in the table and beginning to worry.

The manager has shown in his year in charge that he doesn't shy away from making tough decisions. Neither does he shy away from giving tough answers.

“It is going to be a fight for survival.”

The Millers are punching above their weight just by being at this level, but 23rd spot isn't where anyone wanted to be after a summer of recruitment that gave cause for optimism that the club could emulate last season's 50-point haul and 19th-placed finish.

Then came injuries. And more injuries. And more injuries on top of that.

Of all the factors contributing to Rotherham's predicament the number of players in the treatment room is by far the biggest.

“It's been a brutal start,” said Taylor as his men headed into a fortnight-long international break from which they emerge on Friday night. “We are battered, bruised; broken in some places.”

Grant Hall, Lee Peltier, Cafu, Cohen Bramall, Hakeem Odoffin, Tom Eaves, Georgie Kelly have been unavailable for varying lengths of time. Sean Morrison has been out and hadn't looked the player he was last season. Dexter Lembikisa, Jordan Hugill and Fred Onyedinma have battled through discomfort. Jamie Lindsay and Shane Ferguson have yet to play at all. On many occasions, the bench has had spare places.

That's a long paragraph and an even longer list.

The loss of regular centre-half pairing Cameron Humphreys and Tyler Blackett until January at the earliest is the most savage blow of all.

Their likely replacements, Grant Hall and Lee Peltier, are proven second-tier performers but have featured only twice and four times respectively because of injuries and it's difficult to envisage them - particularly in Hall's case - remaining free of trouble between now and the New Year.

The Morrison of old would have been in the mix in the middle of the backline now he is fit again but there are question marks over his mobility these days.

So far, the gamble of giving one-year deals to an experienced but injury-prone quartet of defenders hasn't paid off, although let's not forget just how well Blackett had been performing prior to his hamstring tear.

Taylor believes that as the injury situation improves so will his squad's fortunes.

“We fought so, so hard to be here again this season,” he said. “We have to find a way to understand what we're going through right now and appreciate how we've shown enough signs we can compete at this level. The fans need to stick with us.

“I'd take going to Millwall on a Wednesday night and then to Cardiff City and Southampton in the next two away matches over being in League One. That's why I came to this club: to manage in the Championship.

“I hope to have a couple more players back after the break. Then we've got to find a way to keep them fit. If we keep them fit, we've got a chance.”

The second thing to blight Rotherham's season has been their form on opposition territory where their opening five league encounters all ended in deserved defeat, four of them by more than a single-goal margin.

“Away games are difficult for any team in the Championship let alone Rotherham,” said Taylor. “You can sense a bit of belief and confidence isn't there enough when we go behind. We also need more quality.

“We've been chasing different solutions: two up front, extra bodies behind the ball, a back three, back five, back four.

“I understand that the fans who have been away from home haven't enjoyed what they've seen. But I'd counter that with anyone who has been to our home games has probably seen a good team.

“It's a tighter pitch at home and we're able to get on top of teams and put them under pressure. We really try to ‘rough up’ the opposition. That's easier said than done when you go away.

“It's been a long-standing problem; not just in my time, before my time as well. Because it's gone on for such a long period, it's in people's heads and players' heads.”

As for referees, let's just not go there. Taylor's tired of talking about it, I'm tired of writing it, you're tired of reading it and we're all tired at how often the Millers find themselves on the wrong end of injustice.

“We're fighting as hard as we can,” the boss said. “We haven't got the points return we deserve. I should be sitting here with eight on the board. The Blackburn Rovers game was a debacle in terms of the officiating.”

Ah, Blackburn: a 2-0 lead that became a 2-2 draw after an apology of a red card for Onyedinma that led to an email saying sorry from refs group PGMOL.

There's no doubt Taylor is feeling a degree of pressure. More than once in the week leading up to the break he mentioned his job being on the line.

With Tony Stewart's backing, he's assembled the strongest Rotherham second-tier squad in the chairman's 15-year tenure. But this is probably the strongest Championship there's ever been too.

Who are the real Millers? The team that saw off promotion contenders Norwich City while playing some of the best football ever witnessed at AESSEAL New York Stadium or the side that have succumbed too passively too often on their travels? Right now, probably both.

The last game before the break, Southampton away, offered hope. A second-half comeback after all had seemed lost brought a first point on the road, and against a top side too. The mood of supporters at the final whistle was much, much different to the darkness of half-time.

Rotherham need to make that reaction and result a turning point as their programme recommences with home games against Ipswich Town and Coventry and then the derby trip to Sheffield Wednesday.

Eleven games in, they have six points. Last term at the same stage, when they finally ended a sequence of three successive second-tier relegations, they'd racked up 15.

They find themselves five points adrift of safety and, historically, they don't often win two matches on the bounce in the Championship. It happened only once in the survival push and once the previous time they were in the division, in 2020/21.

Already they're already playing a game of catch-up. The worry is, the early-season record that helped keep them up last season might be the deciding factor in sending them down in this one.

Please, less injury misfortune from now on. Then, as Taylor says, there's a chance.