Warnock, Warne, a whippet and the Millers at the Madejski Stadium: Rotherham United v Reading preview

IT was the only time Neil Warnock ever doubted himself as he led Rotherham United to that famous Championship survival miracle in 2016.
Paul WarnePaul Warne
Paul Warne

Reading away in his third match in charge.

The Millers had been beaten 1-0 on a depressing Tuesday evening at the Madejski Stadium and the old maestro, brought out of retirement to rescue Rotherham from almost-certain relegation, was still waiting for his first win.

Defeat had taken its toll and as he went up and down the Madejski lift to fulfil his various media obligations - Sky TV in one room, his local lads downstairs, the nationals on another floor - the size of the challenge was weighing heavily.

"I'm getting too old for this," he muttered to himself, away from the microphones but within earshot.

Next up for the Millers class of 2019 fighting to preserve their second-tier status ... Reading away.

Paul Warne is the manager these days and his men have been competitive all season. Staying up won't require quite the miracle of three years ago but is still a huge ask for the team with the smallest budget in the division.

Rotherham occupy the third and final relegation spot and the Royals are above them only on goal difference. Saturday's battle in Berkshire is the biggest match of the campaign so far for both clubs.

The Millers, with 13 games remaining, head there in decent form. They've drawn their last four matches and should have won three of them: at Millwall and Hull City and at home to South Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday last Saturday.

Centre-half Michael Ihiekwe, who played in that firecracker of a 2-2 Owls draw and is in the frame for another start this weekend, said: "You need wins, especially at the bottom. You can really climb the table with a win. We've had four draws on the bounce and the performances are there.

"Now we have a massive game coming up. Saturday is what you call a six-pointer. If we perform like we did against Wednesday and stick together then I'm sure we'll do well there.

Michael Ihiekwe

"We absolutely battered Wednesday and had chances to kill the game off. The last 13 games are cup finals, especially this one at Reading."

The Millers led 2-1 against the Owls and could have been 4-1 in front deep into added time but conceded an equaliser with virtually the last kick of the game.

Warne's side create chances and are capable of scoring against any opponents in the division but their failure to take enough of those opportunities has kept them from the place further up the table some of their play has merited.

Tellingly, Wednesday boss Steve Bruce had picked up on another weakness that had already cost Rotherham valuable points against Nottingham Forest, Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers and Bristol City.

"They cause you problems, but I don't know how many goals they have conceded in the last few minutes," he said. "It seems to be a lot."

AESSEAL New York Stadium was a wonderful hotbed of hostility last weekend, everything a derby arena should be. The stakes will be even higher this Saturday but the atmosphere will lack the enmity of S60 v S6.

The Madejski was built for Premier League football but the Royals don't have the following to fill it and it suffers from an empty-seated sterility now that they've slipped a level.

As Warnock left there following Hal Robson-Kanu's goal, contemplating a long night-time journey to his home in Cornwall while his team headed in a different direction back to South Yorkshire, he was a man in pain.

Warne suffered similarly after the Owls last-gasp strike but, like the saviour of 2016, doesn't stay too down for too long.

"I have asked the players to take a massive amount of confidence from Saturday's game," the present boss said. "We will take that to Reading, play with the same amount of purpose and hopefully pick up three points."

Warne makes no secret of the fact he thinks Jose Manuel Gomes' side are the most talented of all those caught up in the relegation mix.

While the Millers were thwarted in their bid to sign a striker in the January transfer window, the Royals strengthened considerably, bringing in, among others, former Rotherham loan goalkeeper Emi Martinez and Norwich City's Portuguese international forward, Nelson Oliveira, who has already scored two goals.

The Millers haven't won a Championship match on the road in 41 attempts, not since 3,000 travelling fans watched a Warnock-inspired 4-0 triumph at MK Dons, but being the away team could work in their favour.

There is more pressure on Reading. Rotherham, for the purpose of momentum, for the psychological boost of exiting the drop zone, are desperate to win. Their opponents, as the home side, with the two teams so close to each other, will feel they have to.

Both would love to go three points above the other.

Millers captain Richard Wood played in the Royals and MK games under Warnock and knows what is required.

"The season won't be won or lost this weekend,"  the skipper said. "We go into this match full of confidence. Reading lost last week (4-0 at Sheffield United).

"Although you can look on our draw as a bad result, we played well. We dominated Wednesday and if we take that into this match then I think we'll be fine.

Richard Wood

"It mental as much as physical at this stage. It's about staying positive. You just have to blank out all the negative stuff. We've some massive games coming up and none are bigger than this week's.

"Every point is precious, every single minute means something. You don't want to be there (in that position) but at the same time it is exciting to be involved.

"The main thing is that we aren't losing and we are picking up points, although obviously it is better to get three. The draws do kill you and I think they have done that a bit this season.

"The big thing is our team spirit. We just keep going. We have to stick together and grind it out."

Warnock roused himself and his squad after Reading. Six victories and five draws followed as the doubt vanished over 11 memorable games.

Warne's mission to fire up his players began minutes after the disappointment of the dropped derby points.

"The gaffer did a good job in the dressing room in keeping our spirits up," Ihiekwe revealed. "He came in and said we should be proud of our performance.

"If we play like that the next 13 matches then I think we'll be fine."

So, game on. Colossal and crucial, but not quite do or die, more like prevail and prosper.

Just don't expect a Madejski maelstrom like the one just witnessed at New York.

One Reading fan on social media, a certain @iankirkpatrick, invoked regional stereotypes and perhaps thought he was lighting the blue and white touch paper with this daring tweet:

"Looking forward to your six supporters and your whippet."

To be fair, that's around two supporters and a whippet more than his side brought to New York for a 1-1 draw in December.

This article first appeared in the Advertiser