The hugs, the roar, the hope and a warrior called Smudge ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Nottingham Forest 1

By Paul Davis | 07/04/2019

The hugs, the roar, the hope and a warrior called Smudge ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Nottingham Forest 1
Michael Smith scores. Pictures by Steve Mettam

THE hugs were coming and thick and fast but Paul Warne was still building up to the big one.

Lewis Grabban, the Nottingham Forest scorer, looked a touch surprised when he was taken in a warm embrace by the Rotherham United manager as he left the pitch.

Next up were Richie Towell and Joe Newell, their faces wreathed in happiness and satisfaction to match the beatific expression of their boss.

Finally, it was the turn of Michael Smith. Big, bad Smithy. Big, bad, beautiful Smudge.

Warne grabbed him and, for an extra second, wouldn't let go. The 6ft 4in striker had been immense in a priceless 2-1 Championship win over Forest at AESSEAL New York Stadium and boss and player were bathed in smiles. Survival smiles.

Smith had scored, he'd been everywhere, he'd done everything. By the end, the Nottingham defence was more broken than the toe he'd been protecting until the recent international break brought full healing.

"People who come and watch and don't think Smudge is a good player obviously don't understand football," said Warne.

A first Michael Smith goal since January 1

"His all-round contribution - his hold-up play, bring people around him into play, winning free-kicks, winning throw-ins, winning his headers, scoring a goal, being a handful for defenders ..."

The manager's glowing admiration left him unable to complete a proper sentence.

His team of fighters are still in there, still battling so wonderfully on the division's smallest budget to stay up.

The Millers may have remained third from bottom after this epic victory, but every time Wigan Athletic, Reading and Millwall look over their shoulders they see grim determination, a countenance of steely defiance and men in red and white shirts who won't go away.

Warne revealed: "I did say to the lads: 'You've got seven games, seven chances. If in seven games' time you haven't achieved what you wanted to achieve, you'll think of the opportunities you passed up on.'

Millers 2 Forest 1. First chance taken.

THE MATCH

At half-time, with the score locked at 1-1, with his team due to attack the kop end, Warne delivered his message:

"Play with a belief. Play with a bravery. Anyone can run around and tackle but can you get on the ball when we're under the cosh and can you take it in tight areas? You always back yourselves when you shoot this way. Now let's see what you've got."

Smith had been lurking at the back post to take control of Will Vaulks' tenth-minute long throw and fire in his first goal since New Year's Day but Grabban had equalised 18 minutes later, tapping in at the second attempt after Marek Rodak had saved his initial shot.

Six minutes into the second half, Rodak produced a wonder-save, going down like lightning to his left to somehow keep out Grabban's snap-shot, and from there the contest swung in the Millers' favour.

The visitors had hit the post twice before the break, through Yohan Benalouane and Grabban, but now, roared on by a fevered New York crowd, the Millers showed what they had got.

Semi Ajayi, after six goals in six games, stood alone at the back post and simply had to nod in Vaulks' cross. Only he didn't, he headed wide.

Michael Ihiekwe wins it for the Millers

Michael Ihiekwe made no such mistake on the hour mark, rising gloriously to power a difficult header into the top corner.

"Semi's had the headlines for too long now. It was nice for him to miss on purpose," said Warne, grinning away until he realised the winning goal would cost him £4.99 for an Ihiekwe scorer's mug and nearly £90 for the designer-T-shirt he'd naively promised son Mack the night before in the event of a Rotherham triumph.

Smith had played a key part in the goal, getting on the end of Joe Newell's deep corner to head the ball back into the danger area.

There were more hugs, this time of a verbal kind, from Warne for the centre-forward  who had sat out last Saturday's 6-1 loss at Derby County through illness.

"I thought he was unplayable," the boss said. "No disrespect to Jerry (Yates), but we didn't have that last week. He's a different player to Smudge."

Ajayi had hearts in mouths with an ill-advised attempt to pass the ball out of defence late on, yet Rotherham looked the side most likely to score in the final half-hour and Jon Taylor stung the hands of Costel Pantilimon after the pass of the game from Vaulks while Smith had a second goal ruled out for offside.

"Our game-management was spot-on," Warne said. "It helps no end when you've got people like Newelly on the pitch. He's got a really good football brain.

"In added time, we got free-kicks and throw-ins and frustrated them. I kept looking at my watch and thinking 'Come on, please' and then, when the referee blew, it was a joy.

"The lads saw the game out really well and will obviously take confidence from that. We haven't had loads of wins in the Championship. This is a sweet one."

THE IMPORTANCE

Warne knew it, the players knew it, the fans knew it, we all knew it.

The Millers had to win this game.

2-1 to Rotherham

A first triumph over Forest since 1956 saw them keep pace with Millwall and add to the worries of Wigan, who drew at Bristol City, and Reading who fell at Hull City. The Latics are only two points above Rotherham and the Royals and the Lions just a single point clear.

"When you see Millwall have won (at home to West Brom) it makes the three points even more important," Warne acknowledged

"I do know - because I've experienced it the other way round - that Wigan will come in, look at our result and not like it.

"Us winning does pull other teams back into it. The victory was essential."

After running out of people to hug, Warne headed out on to the pitch by himself and a huge roar went up as he acknowledged the backing his side had received.

Manager and fans as one, a team and followers united, a club striving so hard to achieve what it has no right to achieve. At that moment, not one person inside New York didn't believe that survival was possible.

"Our lads can't give much more really," Warne reflected. "How well we're competing and how hard we are to play against is testament to them."

Smith, having celebrated long and hard in front of the kop with his teammates, had been the last player off the turf. Now it was his manager's turn.

As he took his leave, Warne made a flurry of gestures that symbolised the fire that isn't going out, the hope that still burns.

Three manic fist-pumps. Three magic points.

Rotherham (4-1-4-1): Marek Rodak; Billy Jones, Michael Ihiekwe, Richard Wood, Joe Mattock; Semi Ajayi; Jon Taylor, Will Vaulks, Richie Towell, Joe Newell; Michael Smith. Unused: Lewis Price, Anthony Forde, Matt Crooks, Kyle Vassell.
Subs: Clark Robertson (for Mattock, H-T), Ben Wiles (for Jones, 69), Ryan Williams (for Taylor, 80).

Forest (4-4-2): Costel Pantilimon; Saidy Janko, Molla Wague, Yohan Benalouane, Ben Osborne; Joe Lolley, Ben Watson, Jack Colback, Matty Cash; Lewis Grabban, Daryl Murphy. Unused: Luke Steele, Jack Robinson, Claudio Yacob, Karim Ansarifard.

Subs: Pele (for Watson, 69), Arvin Appiah (for Janko, 76), Joao Carvalhal (for Osborn, 76).

Goals: Smith 10, Ihiekwe 60 (Rotherham); Grabban 28 (Forest).

Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).

Attendance: 11,012 (2,616).


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