2018/2019: A season when Rotherham United gave their bodies and soul

By Paul Davis | 08/05/2019

2018/2019: A season when Rotherham United gave their bodies and soul
Millers angst at Swansea City

THE bodies on the turf at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium looked like a death scene.

Rotherham United weren't down but they were laid out, players exhausted in their pursuit of Championship survival points slumping to the floor after the final whistle of a sickening 4-3 loss.

The circumstances of the afternoon — an heroic attempt falling just short, mirroring what had happened throughout the Millers' season — had more than a whiff of a team heading for relegation.

But the theatre in South-west Wales on Good Friday wasn't what condemned Paul Warne and his team of battlers to League One next year.

Events being played out 252 miles away in West Yorkshire, at Elland Road, did that.

Rotherham had only to match the result of Wigan Athletic to remain firmly in the safety mix and surely the Latics would lose against a Leeds United side scenting automatic promotion.

When news filtered through that ten-man Wigan had come from behind to win 2-1, it hit harder and hurt more than the Swans' second-half comeback had done.

Relegation would be duly confirmed eight days later by a 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, where away fans provided a fitting end to a stirring quest, affording their team a standing ovation.

With the smallest budget in the division, having been tipped by nearly every pundit to go down by a landslide, the Millers thrillingly went head to head with the big guns of the Championship and rattled plenty of them along the way.

Just ask Derby County, seen off at AESSEAL New York Stadium with manager Frank Lampard sent to the stand. Just ask Sheffield Wednesday, completely outplayed in both derbies and lucky to claim draws.

“It's been a long, hard season and the lads have given their all from day one,” said manager Warne.

Paul Warne

“I have tried to sign characters and leaders and there is a real togetherness in this squad. The lads have always given everything they have.”

They gave everything to such a degree that though sheer force of will, through set-piece superiority, through relentless running, they often took leads against better teams.

Staying in front proved more difficult and 35 points have been dropped from winning positions.

Every side in the division will have been pegged back at times after going ahead but not to the extent that it equates to almost 12 victories.

The Millers simply wilted in the face of more gifted opposition. The fact that they were ahead in the first place shows just how much and how regularly they managed to raise their game.

Those points were lost in 14 matches against Hull City, Stoke City, Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City, Wednesday, Leeds, Wigan, Wednesday again, Aston Villa, Swansea, Birmingham City and West Brom.

All teams with Premier League histories.

“At the end of the day, and I mean no disrespect to my players, there are far better sides than us in the Championship,” Warne said.

“We have thrown away leads, I understand that. We have been unbelievable in first halves and then the second halves are wave upon wave of opposition attacks. Unfortunately, we just haven't had enough to get us over the line at times.

“That's what this league is like. That isn't through lack of effort from my team. The lads have given us everything on a daily and weekly basis.”

Everything about this campaign seemed to be reflected in that Easter clash against the Swans that ended with virtually an entire team on their backs.

Twice Rotherham were in front and couldn't hold on, but always they were in there scrapping, battling the odds, refusing to surrender to refereeing injustice, coming agonisingly close to a late, deserved leveller.

Warne, having seen his men take their survival pursuit to the penultimate weekend of the season, said: “When I leave, whenever that is, I won't feel any shame about this year.

“I wouldn't change a single decision I've taken, a single substitution I've made.

“I've really enjoyed this season as a manager. I know I've taken us down but I honestly don't know what more we could have done. I hope people have enjoyed watching us, home and away. We're always trying to score goals and we're always trying to make people smile.

“I will look back in years to come and be proud of what these lads achieved.”

With the smallest budget in the division, having been tipped by nearly every pundit to go down by a landslide, the Millers thrillingly went head to head with the big guns of the Championship and rattled plenty of them along the way.

Just ask Stoke, twice fortunate to draw 2-2 as the Millers overpowered them. Just ask Villa who ran into a red-and-white whirlwind at New York before showing their own bottle to fight back for a 2-1 win.

After their promotion from League One, the Millers overcame a 5-1 opening-day reality check at Brentford to remain out of the bottom three until a horrible 2-1 Boxing Day defeat at crisis club Bolton.

They were out of the drop zone in early January yet that month damaged them more than any other.

They needed more firepower for the second phase of their survival mission. A striker simply had to be signed during the transfer window but wasn't.

Rotherham made a loan bid for Huddersfield Town's Colin Quaner, a quick, rangy, powerful attacker who would have suited Warne's style of play, but Ipswich Town — desperate and destined for the drop — were in a different financial league with their offer.

They thought they had a loan deal for Villa prospect Keinan Davis wrapped up until the Midlands outfit decided to hang on to a youngster Warne had watched and raved about.

Money was talking throughout the division and the deeper pockets of the  Millers' rivals for the drop had more to say.

Cardiff City's Anthony Pilkington was of interest but went on loan to Wigan who could also afford the wages for another player on the Millers' loan radar, Sheffield United's Leon Clarke.

Warne burned the midnight oil at New York on January 31 deadline day. He had a rare day off from his healthy eating and fish and chips and McFlurry ice creams were ordered in during the evening as he tried in vain to broker last-gasp deals.

West Brom's Jonathan Leko rejected a temporary switch and, as the clock ticked down, so did a young foreign attacker who preferred to stay in the reserve ranks of a Premier League club in the North.

Jerry Yates was recalled from Carlisle United but didn't make the intended impact while another loanee, David Ball, stayed at Bradford City because Warne, having admired him in a Rotherham shirt in League One, just didn't see an out-and-out number ten playing in the 4-1-4-1 formation he was settling on.

Contrary to some reports, there was never a reluctance on Ball's behalf to return.

Michael Smith

As injuries ruled out Jamie Proctor and Kyle Vassell, Michael Smith was left ploughing a lonely furrow up front, and it was no coincidence that the Millers parted company with head of recruitment Jamie Johnson within weeks of the window closing.

Rotherham remained a band of brothers, a group of good human beings, a sum of more than their parts, always ready to test their competitiveness against opposition class.

“Other teams have more quality than us,” said Player of the Year contender Will Vaulks. “We're not ashamed to admit that. But we play for each other and we never give up.”

Some results caused more damage than others. Wednesday equalised in the tenth minute of stoppage time at New York while relegation rivals Bolton forced an away draw by playing Christian Doidge, a centre-forward who, it would later transpire, they hadn't paid for and who would return to original club Forest Green.

“There are certain games that kill me,” Warne admitted. “The last-second goal for Sheffield Wednesday was brutal.

“I'm still disappointed that we dropped two points at home to Bolton, especially because it was Doidge who scored. I don't think he should have been playing for Bolton.

“I wanted to sign him from Forest Green and couldn't afford to pay what Bolton offered to pay. Then they didn't even pay. That 'gripes' with me massively.”

Whatever, we'll always have Queens Park Rangers away on Wednesday March 13 when the Millers ended a near-three-year wait for a Championship win on their travels and the 321 who were there to watch Semi Ajayi score in the dying seconds ran and danced the length of the Loftus Road away end.

Of the summer new boys, centre-half Clark Robertson had the most impact, right-back Zak Vyner improved through the year, fellow right-back Billy Jones looked good when he stayed fit and forward Kyle Vassell had his early-season moments but never scored before groin surgery cost him a large chunk of his season.

The only January arrival, midfielder Matt Crooks, blossomed in April and will surely be a threat the size of his 6ft 4in frame in League One.

Commitment never wavered. Virtually every week Rotherham turned up. “I feel we have had 45 cup finals and that we've performed in about 41 of them,” Warne said. “This division is so hard. It's just relentless.”

All season it was about teamwork, togetherness, respecting yourself, the badge and each other.

With the smallest budget in the division, having been tipped by nearly every pundit to go down by a landslide, the Millers thrillingly went head to head with the big guns of the Championship and rattled plenty of them along the way.

Just ask table-topping Norwich who described their 2-1 triumph in South Yorkshire as one of their toughest encounters of the season. Just ask promoted Sheffield United, harried and hassled out of their stride in a 2-2 New York draw.

Matt Crooks

Right-back Billy Jones summed up what the manager and his staff managed to create: “You look to your left and right and know the players next to you are giving everything. I've not always had that at other clubs.”

Rotherham returned to the bottom three in mid-February, after Reading had struck late on a Tuesday night at home to Blackburn Rovers, and they never left it again.

“Too many draws,” said Warne by way of explanation. “We've had loads, unfortunately. We weren't sitting back happy with a point in those games. We were always looking to win them.

“I  know some of those could have been defeats — I'm not saying every point we got was fully deserved — but if we could have just turned a couple of those draws into wins we'd have been cooking.”

With the last match, at home to Middlesbrough, to come on Sunday, there have been 16 of them, along with eight victories and 21 defeats.

History will show that Rotherham found it hard to win but were nearly always difficult to play against.

Just once was Warne truly embarrassed, at Derby in March when the Millers were hit by absentees, including Smith who was unavailable for the first and only time, and the Rams cruised to a 6-1 triumph.

The aftermath of Swansea was when shoulders and optimism finally sagged and the prone players on that Liberty Stadium afternoon will be one of the enduring images of the season, a freeze-frame of Rotherham devastation on the day they were effectively done.

But other pictures will also live on: Vaulks' long-throw carnage, the set-piece battery, Jon Taylor beating Peter Crouch in the air, Proctor's last-minute strike against the Blades, Smith's goal at Hillsborough, the party at Loftus Road, Richie Barker's shorts, Semi Ajayi's magic March, Warne's manic fist-pumps, fans applauding players and players applauding fans.

As this campaign of pride and passion comes to a close, after twists and turns, hope and heartache, the bodies on the turf give way to Millers heads being held high.

**********************************

NUMBERS GAME

26: How many goals Rotherham have scored from set-pieces, the best in the Championship. Aston Villa are second with 25.

81: Goals conceded, the highest number in the division.

8: The number of goals for joint-top-scorers centre-half/midfielder Semi Ajayi and midfield man Will Vaulks.

45: League appearances by the Millers' only two ever-presents, goalkeeper Marek Rodak and Ajayi.

3: How many Rotherham players made their senior international debuts this season: Ajayi (Nigeria), forward Kyle Vassell (Northern Ireland) and Vaulks (Wales).

This feature first appeared in last week's Advertiser


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