A season preview should probably start with a look back to last season’s exploits… and what a season it turned out to be. But bear with me whilst I go back two years ago to a windswept Don Valley Stadium to set the scene.
The last blog to appear on WAGU about Rotherham United was in August 2011 when the previous Millers blogger was feeling upbeat about the forthcoming 2011/12 season. It was set to be our final year in exile in Sheffield with our Football League-imposed deadline to return to our hometown fast approaching. The first spade was in the ground at our new stadium site and having succeeded club legend Ronnie Moore in March 2011, our new manager Andy Scott had the Millers top of the league and star player Adam Le Fondre was firing the goals in.
Well, nearly two years on from that account, I’m struggling to find a place to start on how much this club I love has changed on and off the field. Millers fans were right to be upbeat about what was in store, particularly with the efforts we were witnessing from Tony Stewart in trying to get us back to our hometown. A site close to the town centre a stone’s throw from Millmoor had been chosen, planning permission was acquired and a Twitter feed set up by the construction company was keeping fans on the edge of their seats as we saw the ground constructed before our very eyes.
But on the pitch, the promising start under Andy Scott quickly turned sour. Our hot-shot striker ‘Alfie’ was poached by Reading in September and several tepid displays led chairman Tony Stewart to pull the trigger. Noticing a pattern yet? The appointment of Steve Evans pleased a lot of fans but baffled some. His theatrics and overall demeanor in charge of Crawley had left a bad taste in most fans’ mouths up and down the country, so despite his impressive track record of gaining promotion, would he fit in with our image as a family club?
Rotherham fans are inherently pessimistic beings. The many false dawns on opportunities to redevelop Millmoor. The failed takeovers. The many administrations where we very nearly went out of existence. All of which have made most Millers develop a second skin and be realistic about the size of club Rotherham United is and what we can feasibly achieve.
The new stadium made us change this attitude. When coupled with the desperation to get out of League Two after our longest ever stay in the basement league, that image of Rotherham United as a friendly small-time club in a crumbling old ground punching above their weight was disappearing overnight. The newly christened 12,000 all-seater ‘New York Stadium’ was taking shape and was looking staggering. Stewart had his sights set on getting us back to the Championship. Expectations were beginning to rise.
Yet another summer overhaul of the playing squad was on the cards with our new manager famed for his ability to cut a deal. But this time, we really did go back to the drawing board. Evans made a statement of intent with his first signing being Daniel Nardiello, the prolific ex-Barnsley forward. He added man-mountain Kayode Odejayi and then proceeded to focus on the area that needed the most attention, forming a cultured and creative midfield with new contracts for Kari Arnason, Michael O’Connor and David Noble. Slowly but surely, over 10 new players had come through the door at NYS.
Steve Evans lives and breathes his football. He’s all in. You get every ounce out of him – and trust me that’s a lot of ounces. The only promise Evans made to us in August was that it would be a ‘rollercoaster’ of a season. Nice and open-ended you might think. After a promising start when we handed out thrashings to Burton in our first game and to Evans’ best mates BradfordCity, 3-0 and 4-0 respectively, our form began to suffer when the big man was suspended for his antics at Bradford in charge of Crawley the previous season. The rollercoaster was taking more dips than we’d like, with us being on the end of thrashings of our own at the hands of Dagenham and Port Vale.
The defence was leaky and gaps were being plugged with hasty loan signings. But things soon took an upward curve after January. Lee Frecklington was signed up after impressing on loan, Nardiello was consistently scoring in the important games and the Millers were maintaining a strong presence in the playoff places, ending with an astounding 5-match winning streak to snatch 2nd place. One of the away games being a 2-0 at a certain Bradford City – it was written in the stars that Steve Evans would return to Valley Parade and claim the spoils again wasn’t it? A steely 2-0 home win against Aldershot on the last day finally brought League One football back to Rotherham after 6 years of trying! He wasn’t wrong about that rollercoaster was he?
Now the euphoria has died down you would think Evans would be happy with his promotion-winning squad of players. Seven new signings later and you wonder when this will ever end! I was hoping that tweaks may be made to add strength in depth and in truth they have, with shrewd buys like Richard Brindley, David Worrall and Rob Milsom all giving us competition for places. However, whilst the additions of the highly-rated Michael Tidser and Evans’ favourite Matt Tubbs are top quality acquisitions for League One, it is hard to think how Evans will keep all of his players happy.
The signing of Tubbs on loan brings to an end one of the longest transfer sagas I can remember but he finally has his man. The Bournemouth striker certainly knows where the net is and Millers fans will be hoping he is in the Le Fondre mould as, whilst Nardiello managed a one in two ratio last season despite coming off the bench for most of it, he is more effective for the team as an old ‘inside forward’ as he likes to take on players. We certainly won’t struggle for goals as we have numerous options from midfield in O’Connor, Noble, Frecklington, Pringle and Tidser in addition to Nardiello, Tubbs, Agard, Hylton and the hard-working Alex Revell up front. It is at the back where I am concerned as clumsy Claude Davis and the so-laid-back he’s-horizontal Arnason are the only cover to the outstanding Craig Morgan now that captain Johnny Mullins has been sold to Oxford.
So to sum up, I’m quietly optimistic about our chances this year – which probably says a lot about where we are as a club right now. When we previously reached this level following promotion in 2000 we were rank underdogs, we as fans were eager to just enjoy it while it lasted – but Moore surprised everyone by claiming a second successive automatic promotion with an honest hard-working side. This time we have a huge squad of talented players playing passing football in a dazzling new stadium, the pundits are expecting us to ruffle a few feathers and the general mood from the fans is ‘Everyone hates us, we don’t care!’.
The club has changed remarkably and, whilst I’m enjoying the ‘ride’ and the buzz of going to New York Stadium is still as strong as 12 months ago, I’m just praying the wheels don’t come off. I never want to see those begging buckets again. Most of these new players are now being bought for ‘undisclosed fees’ and it makes you wonder what kind of wage they are taking home. I’d be quite happy with mid-table obscurity to give us a chance to find our feet and take stock but, as you might have gathered, we don’t like to stand still at Rotherham United. Whatever happens, it’ll be eventful!
Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger
Michael tweets at @mikew_83