Six wins, fifth spot, countless chances and one Gerry Cinnamon concert ... Rotherham United after 11 matches

More important than ever ... Richard WoodMore important than ever ... Richard Wood
More important than ever ... Richard Wood
ROTHERHAM United’s staff headed to Sheffield for a Gerry Cinnamon concert in high spirits.

It was the last evening of September, two days before the trip to Cheltenham Town for the final match prior to the international break.

The Millers had climbed to fifth in League One and were unbeaten in their last four outings.

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A night at Sheffield Arena was just the kind of relaxation manager Paul Warne, assistant boss Richie Barker and coach Matt Hamshaw deserved.

Forty-eight hours later, Rotherham saw off the Robins 2-0 and were up to fourth.

Twenty points from 11 matches: their best return in the opening stages of any of their three third-tier campaigns under Warne. And they were promoted in the other two.

There’s an argument to be had about whether the team assembled for this promotion push are better than the ones of 2017/18 (Will Vaulks, Semi Ajayi, David Ball, Joe Newell, Richard Wood) and 2019/20 (Michael Smith, Michael Ihiekwe, Matt Crooks, Chiedozie Ogbene, Wood again).

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What isn’t up for debate, though, is that the squad of 2021/22 have more strength in depth than any Millers group in recent history.

“Teams win you games,” the boss said. “Squads get you promoted.”

When they signed off at Cheltenham, Rotherham had moved to within two points of top spot. After a smattering of games last weekend, when Warne’s men didn’t play, the gap was three and the Millers were fifth again.

There have been pockets of perfection, moments of mayhem, the inclination for all-out attack yet sometimes a susceptibility to sit back.

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Rotherham hide from nothing and are still finding themselves. Maybe the most exciting aspect of all is that Warne teams always become more than the sum of their parts and are already winning while the parts are still slightly exceeding their sum.

What might this pack of pace and power, this group growing together, this cluster of class and energy, be capable of a few weeks down the line? Where might they be already if they’d taken more of the chances they can’t stop creating?

“The best out of my squad this year might be sixth, it might be first. I don’t know yet,” said Warne.

It’s telling that the boss is contemplating nothing less than the play-offs.

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With the likes of Wigan Athletic, Ipswich Town, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton Wanderers throwing their weight and wallets around, this looks to be the strongest League One for years.

It’s to Rotherham’s credit, then, that many of the figures point to them being the club other sides least look forward to facing.

“You can make statistics say anything” is a well-worn phrase but no-one can deny that, as the Millers pressed pause on their league schedule for a fortnight, they said this:

* Warne’s men had kept League One’s most clean sheets, six.

* They had allowed the fewest goal attempts against them, 86 — less than eight a game.

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* They had engineered the most goal attempts, 169, at an average of more than 15 a match.

Expected goals are the number of goals a team should have scored when the amount and type of chances in a match are taken into consideration.

Rotherham’s is 1.95 — the best in the division — and for sides playing against them only 0.8.

Meanwhile, the three management musketeers were enjoying their taste of Gerry Cinnamon at the Arena as they celebrated the birthday of Warne’s wife, Rachel. Hamshaw’s better half, Kerry, was also there while Barker was flying solo as wife Tracey was back at the family home in Brighton.

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The trio had selected the side to face Cheltenham earlier that day, a task made easier by the torn hamstring suffered by midfielder Jamie Lindsay.

A similar injury for the Scot last year had been the beginning of the end of Rotherham’s hopes of staying in the Championship but their increased depth this time around makes his six-week absence testing rather than terminal.

Everywhere in their 3-5-2 formation the Millers have options.

Up front, it’s Michael Smith plus one, with Will Grigg accepting the second invite ahead of Freddie Ladapo and Josh Kayode.

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The midfield picks itself for now, signing of the summer Ollie Rathbone, the fetcher, the carrier, the ferret in red and white, complemented by the different gifts of Dan Barlaser and Ben Wiles until Lindsay’s return adds even more to the pot.

At wing-back, Chiedozie Ogbene starts in front of Kieran Sadlier on the right but I’m glad it’s Warne’s job, not mine, to decide between Shane Ferguson’s craft and crossing and Mickel Miller’s dart and danger on the left.

In a backline of three, it’s middle man Wood plus two. New boy Rarmani Edmonds-Green is proving himself a welcome gatecrasher, leaving Michael Ihiekwe, Joe Mattock and Wes Harding as other worthy contenders.

Viktor Johansson has earned the goalkeeper’s jersey but Josh Vickers would let down no-one if he received the call to replace him.

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Loanee Grigg, warming more and more to the Warne way and the wily fox in the box Rotherham haven’t really had since Alfie was wreaking havoc more than a decade ago, could be the difference between a good campaign and a great one.

His presence alongside Smith should certainly mean that more of that overload of opportunities are taken.

Wood, the grandad, the leader, has been there, done it, got two promotion T-shirts and looks in the mood to wear a third.

If you want more pre-international-break stats, Smith, in the scoring form of his life, had mustered more efforts on goal, 43, than any other striker in League One while Rathbone’s number of tackles, 38, was the highest in the country in any of the four divisions.

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The Millers lost, undeservedly, to a last-minute goal at Wigan, destroyed Lincoln City yet drew and, after converting one of 23 chances, presented Crewe Alexandra with an 89th-minute equaliser.

Points have been thrown away but many more will be gained if they continue to demonstrate the game-management they showed against Morecambe, Doncaster Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Cheltenham.

After Rotherham had missed a penalty, the second half of a 2-0 loss against Wednesday was poor. The reverse at the hands  of Fleetwood Town was a strange blip. In all three of their defeats, they’ve beaten themselves rather than been seen off by the opposition.

Elsewhere, the signs suggest the Millers are coming. We will know much more at the end of this month after a run of four consecutive matches against promotion rivals: Portsmouth and Wycombe Wanderers at home, MK Dons away, then a New York clash with Sunderland.

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In 2017/18, it was 18 points from the first 11 matches; in 2019/20, the same.

This time,  it’s six wins, three defeats, two draws, the ball put into the box from all angles and no such thing as a boring game.

“On opening day, if we’d been offered 20 points after 11 games, we’d have taken it,” Hamshaw said.

The Millers birthday party left the Arena with the sound of Gerry Cinnamon’s best-known song ringing in their ears.

Its title might slightly overstate the quality of Rotherham’s start. But only slightly.