Covid, Wayne Rooney, Freddie and Hillsborough, last-day heartache, a club record and another promotion push ... the story of Rotherham United's 2021

On the promotion path as Rotherham United look to bounce straight back from relegation ... Paul Warne after November's win at Ipswich Town. Picture by Jim BrailsfordOn the promotion path as Rotherham United look to bounce straight back from relegation ... Paul Warne after November's win at Ipswich Town. Picture by Jim Brailsford
On the promotion path as Rotherham United look to bounce straight back from relegation ... Paul Warne after November's win at Ipswich Town. Picture by Jim Brailsford
JANUARY NO crowds. Football is still losing its soul to a disease. Games matter but they don’t matter; not like they should anyway, not without fans, without colour, without noise.


NO crowds. Football is still losing its soul to a disease. Games matter but they don’t matter; not like they should anyway, not without fans, without colour, without noise.

The Covid lockdown is at its peak and Matt Olosunde goes through Everton left-back Lucas Digne, like a virus, time and again running past the French international as Rotherham United give Premier League opposition an almighty scare in the FA Cup.

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The Millers are going pretty well despite being hit by the pandemic more than any other club. Championship survival is a real possibility. But fixture congestion is looming  ...

Matt Crooks plays out of his skin and scores as Paul Warne’s men win handsomely at Middlesbrough. Boro boss Neil Warnock takes notice. That won’t be the last we hear of that.

Stoke boss Michael O’Neill is a terse, mardy old sod in the AESSEAL New York Stadium media room after Rotherham dent his team’s promotion hopes.

Results: Everton 2 Rotherham 1 (after extra time, FA Cup), Derby 0 Rotherham 1, Rotherham 3 Stoke 3, Middlesbrough 0 Rotherham 3, Rotherham 1 Swansea 3.

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Quote: “You shithouse.” Millers coach Matt Hamshaw’s quaint description of James Linington as the referee bottles a clear second yellow card for Derby’s Krystian Bielik at Pride Park.


The Derby County game at New York is off, then it’s on again. The Rams are back 24 hours after a fixture already postponed once because of Covid has been rained off.

Visiting manager Wayne Rooney doesn’t like Millers owner Tony Stewart’s celebrations as Rotherham produce a late victory spurt. “No class,” accuses Rooney.

The chairman isn’t having that and gives Rooney both barrels when the Advertiser interview him the following day.

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Rotherham skipper Richard Wood, one of the hardest men ever to lace up a pair of boots, is too scared to tackle a robin that flies on to the team coach on the way to Preston.

The Millers lose Jamie Lindsay to a hamstring tear in that afternoon’s victory and aren’t quite the same team for the next two months.

On the night of the Derby postponement, I sit late in an otherwise-deserted press box filing stories for the web. Millers chief operating officer Paul Douglas, standing by the players’ tunnel, doesn’t know anyone is watching when he rounds on a Rams official who is trying to stir up trouble.

It warms my heart how he goes into battle for his club. Douglas 1 Derby 0.

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Results: Rotherham 3 Derby 0, Preston 1 Rotherham 2, Rotherham 1 Cardiff 2, Bournemouth 1 Rotherham 0, Norwich 1 Rotherham 0, Rotherham 0 Nottingham Forest 1 Rotherham 0 Reading 1.

Quote: “There are some good losers and there are some bad losers.” Stewart’s opinion of Derby’s manager.


“Go on Freddie. Mek a name for yourself.”

Warne’s favourite single moment of his five-plus years in charge is about to happen.

It’s 1-1 at Hillsborough and the derby with Sheffield Wednesday is deep, deep into added time when Covid-ravaged Rotherham break from an Owls corner and Crooks finds Freddie Ladapo.

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The striker still has much to do and John Breckin is famously calling the action on the iFollow microphone as the striker dances towards goal.

Winning in the last minute at Hillsborough

Everything has been stacked against the Millers. Olosunde has conceded an unlucky own goal and they’re down to ten men because Michael Smith has been wrongfully sent off, a dismissal the EFL will quickly reverse.

And then, gloriously ...

Freddie meks a name for himself.

Results: Sheff Wed 1 Rotherham 2, Rotherham  1 Watford 4, Bristol C 0 Rotherham 2.

Quote: “I was screaming at Crooksy for so long and I was just hoping that he would try to find me. I’ve said to him: ‘Thank you so much.’” Ladapo shows his gratitude to his teammate.


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The month when Rotherham pay Covid’s full price. They’re caught in a vicious spiral of 12 matches in 37 days, including one spell of four in eight. They give everything but they’re out on their feet. It’s impossible.

Results: Millwall 1 Rotherham 0, Rotherham 0 Wycombe 3, Huddersfield 0 Rotherham 0, Rotherham 3 QPR 1, Rotherham 0 Coventry 1, Rotherham 0 Birmingham 1, Rotherham 1 Middlesbrough 2, Barnsley 1 Rotherham 0, Brentford 1 Rotherham 0.

Quote: “It is tough to pick the lads up. They are not idiots. They can see the league table. I know the games are running out but we have got to believe.” Warne feels the strain after the Birmingham defeat during the schedule from hell.


Six minutes. Just six minutes. That’s how close Rotherham came to the great escape from their Covid nightmare.

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Events elsewhere meant they just had to hang on to their 1-0 last-day lead at Cardiff City to defy all odds and stay up.

I hate Marlon Pack. I hate 88th-minute equalisers. I hate empty stadiums.

There were four minutes of stoppage time but Millers heads and hearts had gone.

Results: Rotherham 1 Blackburn 1, Luton 0 Rotherham 0, Cardiff 1 Rotherham 1.

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Quote: “It’s a hard question to answer. I’m emotionally beaten. I just need to go away, lick my wounds and shut my front door for a few days. I’m not saying I want to walk into unemployment or anything. I just don’t know what more we can give.” The manager isn’t sure about next season.


It doesn’t take Warne long to realise there’s plenty more he can give and he’s busy plotting pre-season signings with head of recruitment Rob Scott.

No arrivals are imminent but plenty of work is going on behind the scenes. Midfielder Crooks is going to Ipswich Town. Well, that’s what a lot of noise at the Ipswich end is suggesting. In Rotherham circles, the word is that Warnock will get his man.

Quote: “You’re not going to sell one of your best assets to a League One rival unless it’s for a significant amount of money. I don’t regard £600,000 for Crooksy as a significant amount.” Ipswich’s low bidding is one of several reasons why Crooks is heading elsewhere.


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Crooks joins Middlesbrough. He’s been magnificent for the Millers, who helped him through the death of best friend Jordan Sinnott, and departs with everyone’s best wishes.

It’s a big blow, a big blow. However, a friendly at Rochdale three days earlier has thrown up something interesting. More on that later.

The 2-2 draw at Dale marks Shane Ferguson’s debut and he sets up a goal within minutes with a pinpoint delivery. That’s a sign of things to come.

Quote: “I’ve had some deeply personal moments wearing your shirt and these will be etched in my memory.” Crooks’ farewell message to fans.


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Fans are back! Covid is still here but now so are vaccinations and football rediscovers its soul.

A midfielder by the name of Ollie Rathbone had played rather well for Rochdale against Rotherham a couple of weeks earlier and the Millers snap him up in the best bit of business any League One club does all summer.

Warne’s side are showing signs of promise in the first month of the season.

Results: Rotherham 2 Plymouth 0, Rotherham 1 Accrington 2, EFL Cup), Wigan 1 Rotherham 0, Morecambe 0 Rotherham 1, Rotherham 0 Sheff Wed 2, Rotherham 2 Doncaster 0.

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Quote: “I always liked Ollie at Rochdale. He’s busy, plays forward, runs off strikers and wants to make things happen. He is also feisty and as fit as a flea.” The manager isn’t wrong about the new boy.


Something is beginning to stir.

A draw at Lincoln City doesn’t sound like that much to shout about, but it’s a 1-1 rout and the home side are hardly in the game.

Dan Barlaser is back in his quarterback role, just behind Ben Wiles and Ollie Rathbone, Rarmani Edmond-Greens slips in so, so comfortably on the right of a three-man defence. The formula has been found.

And so the run starts ...

Results: Doncaster 0 Rotherham 6 (EFL Trophy), Rotherham 2 Fleetwood 4, Lincoln 1 Rotherham 1, Bolton 0 Rotherham 2, Rotherham 1 Crewe 1, Rotherham 3 Wimbledon 0, Cheltenham 0 Rotherham 2.

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Quote: “I knew all the words, that wasn’t a problem, but the chair was all wrong. The lads made me stand on this wobbly foam thing at the team hotel and I’m thinking: ‘If I fall off here it’s going to be horrific.’” Rathbone on the stress of his Millers initiation song.


Portsmouth - tick, MK Dons - tick, Sunderland - tick.

One promotion rival after another fall at the feet of Rotherham as the Millers show that, on their day, they’re the strongest side in the division.

It’s not just the wins that are impressive, it’s the manner of them. Pompey, the Dons and the Black Cats are all blown away, and Michael Smith can’t stop scoring.

Another game, another goal ... Michael Smith

New York hasn’t seen football this good since it opened in 2012.

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Wycombe come to shut up shop. They drag their heels so much that the ball is in play for less than 40 minutes and the evening match finishes just after midnight. Well, nearly.

New York hasn’t seen time-wasting this bad since it opened in 2012.

Results: Rotherham 4 Scunthorpe 1 (EFL Trophy), Rotherham 4 Portsmouth 1, Rotherham 0 Wycombe 0, MK Dons 0 Rotherham 3, Rotherham 5 Man City Under-21s 0 (EFL Trophy), Rotherham 5 Sunderland 1.

Quote: “Yeah, it felt good to give the Sunderland fans a bit.” Newcastle fan and former Toon player Barlaser on running towards the away end with another ex-Magpie, Ferguson, as the goals rain in against Sunderland.


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Rotherham are busy in three different competitions and the outcome is always the same: they don’t lose.

Even the best player to visit New York all season, Cambridge United’s Wes Hoolahan, can’t halt the juggernaut.

Ipswich, from previous painful experiences in the face of red and white, know what’s coming and are almost beaten before the evening kick-off. They’re certainly beaten by the final whistle.

On the way home on a deserted A1 at 12.45am, I get my third speeding ticket in my last three visits to Portman Road. They’ve all been worth it. Three trips, three wins.

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The stats are all stacking up: the most prolific attack, the meanest defence, more clean sheet than anyone, so far ahead for expected goals that on the xG graphs the Millers are a dot on their own while 23 other clubs lose ground like the Conservative party at a North Shropshire by-election.

And so the run continues ...

Results: Charlton 1 Rotherham 1, Rotherham 3 Bromley 0 (FA Cup), Rotherham 3 Cambridge 1, Ipswich 0 Rotherham 2, Oxford 0 Rotherham 0, Rotherham 1 Port Vale 1 (Rotherham win penalty shoot-out, EFL Trophy).

Quote: “F*ck me, it’s cold. Ask your questions quickly, I’ll give one-word answers and then we can all f*ck off back home.” After-match advice from a shivering Warne to the media on the touchline at Oxford United as Storm Arwen bites.


The Millers, without hitting the heights of their October displays, are still winning.

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Forty-seven points by the halfway stage of the season exceeds the two-a-game ratio that Warne believes will be enough to secure an instant return to the Championship.

Millers supporters are lapping it up. New York is noisy and fans are travelling in big, big numbers to away games, but the largest away following of all watches a Boxing Day loss at Accrington Stanley.

And so the run ends …

Games are falling left, right and centre to a new coronavirus variant and Rotherham’s last match of 2021 is postponed because of cases in opponents Lincoln City’s camp.

Still, the outlook remains as rosy as last season’s Covid struggle was bleak.

Promotion favourites. Those 21 games. Crowds.

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Results: Rotherham 1 Stockport 0 (FA Cup), Rotherham 5 Gillingham 1, Rotherham 3 Burton 1, Cambridge 0 Rotherham 1, Accrington 1 Rotherham 0.

Quote: “The lads come in after a win well pleased with themselves for 20 minutes and then they move on to the next game. No-one is getting carried away.” Warne on the attitude driving the promotion push.