The drop, the fans, the pride and the tears ... the story of West Brom 2 Rotherham United 1

By Paul Davis | 28/04/2019

The drop, the fans, the pride and the tears ... the story of West Brom 2 Rotherham United 1
The Millers take the lead at West Brom. Pictures by Trevor Price

THE away fans stayed behind to give their team a standing ovation.

This wasn't a relegation where Rotherham United slipped meekly, furtively out of the Championship having been lambs to the slaughter to the division's bigger clubs.

The fight was over yet what a fight it had been.

To a man, the supporters cheered. To a man, tearful players responded. Admiration was mutual, the togetherness genuine.

Will Vaulks, the epitome of everything good about the Millers this season, dragged his injured body towards the crowd to hand his shirt to one of the 1,000-plus cheering followers.

There was sadness in the air but also other things almost tangible in their intensity: pride, dignity, defiance.

Before a 2-1 defeat to promotion-chasing West Bromwich Albion had confirmed the drop on the campaign's penultimate weekend, Paul Warne had turned to music to inspire his men.

"In the team meeting last night, I played Faith by George Michael," the manager revealed.  "Everybody had to hug everybody else and thank them for the season. 

"All the staff and players were there and there was a real bond in that room."

Goal celebration

It was an emotional afternoon. Warne, able to find humour in his darkest hour, bragged that he had managed not to cry when he addressed his team after the contest at the Hawthorns.

But then, as he was standing pitchside with the media, talk of the struggle, the battle against the odds, his poorly dad, what his players and the supporters meant to him all become too much and he broke down.

"We don't applaud the fans out of insincerity," he'd said earlier. "When we go over it isn't like: 'Oh come on, lads, you've got to make a token gesture.' 

"I think the players and the fans here have always had a good relationship. They appreciate each other's efforts. To be fair to Rotherham fans travelling the country, we're the underdogs everywhere we've been. 

"They've travelled in their numbers  and I know it's not easy to support us at times in the Championship. The lads are respectful of that. 

"It was a nice thing that the fans stayed and clapped. I do think they appreciate what we've tried to do. We've tried to be as attacking as we can possibly be."

Even West Brom followers, having seen their own team pushed to the limit, waited to pay tribute to a side who have been inspiringly competitive all year despite operating on the second tier's smallest budget.

"The fact that they clapped my team off as well means the world," Warne said. "It shows they understand what a game they've been in."

Before the end of his press duties, he was already talking about pre-season, about next year, about tackling League One with renewed vigour.

Down. Not out.

THE MATCH

Having been much the better side in the first half, the Millers - who knew only a victory would suffice after Millwall's early-kick-off draw - went ahead in the 50th minute through Clark Robertson's header .

Everyone dared to have Faith that the survival bid could be extended into the last week.

But two goals in two minutes from West Brom turned the encounter on its head, leaving Rotherham to rue 32 points dropped from winning positions since August.

That stat rankles with Warne who declared: "It's not like the lads have laid down after going in front. We have to go all guns blazing for the whole game. Sometimes, the extra quality of the opposition counts."

Robertson had served notice of his threat with a 17th-minute header that smacked the woodwork and he headed home Joe Newell's free-kick soon after the restart despite West Brom's best efforts to hook the ball off the line.

Match action

Jay Rodriguez fluffed his lines for the Baggies and strike partner Gayle made a Dwight mess of an opportunity but, after Millers skipper Vaulks had hobbled out of the fray, the Newcastle United loanee made amends by winning the penalty in the 77th minute that brought the equaliser.

Gayle fell under a striker's challenge from Michael Smith and Rodriguez did the rest before Rekeem Harper rifled in a 79th-minute winner.

"I'm hugely disappointed with their first goal," Warne said. "It should have been our throw-in in the bottom corner, not theirs, for sure. I've watched it back so I'm more than happy to put my name to that statement. 

"They win a penalty from us and it's a massive swing. We had to play 'high risk' after that because we needed a winning goal. We're open to the counter-attack and end up losing the game. I don't think that result was fair. We hit the post, we hit the bar. The lads were excellent."

Late on, West Brom substitutes Matt Phillips and Hal Kanu-Robson missed one-on-ones while sub Kyle Vassell headed an inviting chance over and Newell wobbled the bar with a 20-yarder that deserved a goal for the Millers.

"When the final whistle went, I was obviously disappointed," Warne said. "A lot of my team were crying, as they were in the dressing room. 

"They've given everything for this great club. There is no shame in what's happened, in my opinion, I'm really proud of the group. 

"Overall, our performance against a team full of unbelievable quality was great," Warne said. "Crooksy (Matt Crooks) is having a great run of form. The two centre-halves (Micharl Ihiekwe and Robertson) were excellent, as was Joe Mattock.

"We tried to take the game to them. We tried to win."

As the boss and his players eventually turned from the away end and trooped towards the tunnel, the lyrics of Michael lingered:  "Need some time off from that emotion. Time to pick my heart up off the floor."

NO JUST REWARD

He never actually mentioned his father, but we all knew.

Warne had ticked off the game, the officials' error, the lost 32 points and a host of other topics.

Then a season of relentless competition and personal worry suddenly took its toll.

"I will always treasure how the lads have put their hearts and souls into this season," he said.

A good man suffered and his voice caught as he added: "They have been an amazing group. My life away from football hasn't been amazing. But spending time with them is like sunshine to my soul."

The boss, like the Millers themselves, is ready for the summer, for a break, to ponder, to look forward, to rebuild, to come again.

Will Vaulks

He recovered himself faster than a Mattock booking and offered a final reflection on an uplifting campaign: "It's a disappointing end, but as I said to the lads: 'Has it not been exciting?' 

"I always say to them that good things happen to good people and there was a real belief that it would happen.

"We've tried to go toe to toe with some ridiculous clubs and I think we have made people proud in the town. At least I hope we have."

Vaulks, meanwhile, has yielded to no opponent this term but had to yield to injury here.

With Rotherham's fate sealed, he returned to the pitch to salute the red-and-white horde with his teammates.

Wearing only one of his Adidas Copa boots, arms raised in acknowledgement of supporters, he limped to a fan and gave away his jersey, unwittingly capturing the spirit of the day and the Millers' stirring nine-month battle

Wounded for now, warriors all season.

West Brom (3-5-2): Sam Johnstone; Craig Dawson, Kyle Bartley, Ahmed Hegazi; Mason Holgate, Rekeem Harper, Stefan Johansen, Chris Brunt, Kieran Gibbs; Dwight Gayle, Jay Rodriguez. Unused: Jonathan Bond, Hal Robson-Kanu, Conor Townsend, Tosin Adarabioyo, Sam Field, Jacob Murphy.
Subs: Matt Phillips (for Johansen, 67), Jacob Murphy (for Holgate, 77), Hal Robson-Kanu (for Rodgriguez, 86).

Rotherham (4-1-4-1): Marek Rodak; Billy Jones, Michael Ihiekwe, Clark Robertson, Joe Mattock; Semi Ajayi; Anthony Forde, Will Vaulks, Matt Crooks, Joe Newell; Michael Smith. Unused: Lewis Price, Richard Wood, Jon Taylor.
Subs: Richie Towell (for Vaulks, 71), Ryan Williams (for Forde, 83), Kyle Vassell (for Jones, 83).

Goals: Rodriguez pen 77, Harper 79 (West Brom); Robertson 50 (Rotherham).

Referee: Robert Jones (Merseyside).


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