Backed by over 1300 noisy away fans at a sunny Gresty Road, Rotherham United kicked off their first season back in League One for seven years in their new God-awful-grey away shirts. However uninspiring the players looked in this monstrosity, we were quietly confident the game – and the forthcoming season at that – would be anything but a drab affair. Surely not with this exciting team full of quality and endeavour that Steve Evans has been building.
We were right to expect entertainment, but it was at the wrong end. Within the first ten minutes we found ourselves two goals down and already staring down the barrel at an opening day defeat. I think the first weekend of August is too early for a game of football, and our defence were certainly still daydreaming of their sun loungers on the beach – particularly Claude Davis (who had been a rock towards the end of last season) was all over the shop as Crewe taught us an early lesson in being alert at this higher level. Our midfield talisman Lee Frecklington got us a goal back almost straight away and before 3.15pm we’d had a barnstormer of a start to League One football.
We went on to go further behind before staging a late fightback with two excellent long range strikes from Ben Pringle and Frecklington, the latter with a curling shot into the top corner in injury time. A 3-3 draw on the opening day. Maybe these shirts weren’t so bad after all!
Davis was subbed shortly after half time in that game and has not been near the side since. Kari Arnason and new captain Craig Morgan have built a fine partnership at the back, the skipper managing to keep his former team Preston from scoring at home the following week. Kevin Davies hardly had a sniff.
Five games in, I think we can be pleased with our start. Six points from four games isn’t pulling any trees up, granted, but (unusually as a Miller) I like to look at the positives. We are unbeaten in five games – add that to a five match winning streak to win promotion last season and that suggests we are a team in good shape despite several new additions in the Summer. Our starting eleven has been unchanged for four games which is a real rarity under Evans. And our squad is starting to look very strong with many showing their class at League One level and possibly higher as we are even making Championship sides look ordinary – more on that shortly.
I’ve already touched on our defensive frailties and these seem to have been largely ironed out other than a wobbly first half against Shrewsbury at the weekend. Scott Shearer is keeping new signing Adam Collin out of the side whilst Joe Skarz and Mark Bradley are showing plenty of steel alongside Arnason and Morgan. The only concern here is that once Kari is on international duty with Iceland we begin to look a bit short at the back with only clumsy Claude for cover, which may be why Evans is said to still be after new blood.
Our midfield, so often our weakest link was our biggest asset last season and it is now even stronger. Highly-rated duo Michael Tidser and Crawley goal hero David Worrall have been restricted to cameo roles as Michael O’Connor and Frecklington have come back fitter and hungrier this season. Pringle continues to be his enigmatic self on the left but with a bit more application than usual and Kieran Agard has carried his electrifying form from last season into the new campaign. David Noble has been warming the bench rather than patrolling the centre circle but may get his chance along with Tidser when O’Connor gets his call-up for Northern Ireland. And I haven’t even mentioned Rob Milsom who, despite being arguably our best player in pre-season cannot displace Evans’ favourite Pringle.
Up front however, you could say the jury is out and may well be for another month or so. New recruits Danny Hylton and Matt Tubbs are well behind the rest of the group in terms of fitness and whilst Evans may be playing Tubbs alongside our loveable workhorse Alex Revell to get his 90 minutes in, this is at the expense of last season’s top scorer Daniel Nardiello. Tubbs is still without a goal for Rotherham and you would think Nardiello would have jumped at the chance to get him out of the side when he came on as a sub on Saturday. His header to equalise went some way towards doing that although mouthing off at the referee earned him a red card which has now put him back on the sidelines. We better hope our star midfielders keep on the goal trail.
And so we prepare for the biggest test of the season so far. As much as our pretentious neighbours from Hillsborough would like to contest this, our trip to Aston Villa in the Second Round of the Capital One Cup is a far bigger game against a much bigger club than Sheffield Wednesday. I must admit though we did enjoy sending them packing on that Tuesday night at New York with what must go down as one of our greatest performances at our new home. A capacity crowd saw an out-of-sorts Owls side get torn apart by fired up Rotherham with two sumptuous strikes from Pringle and Frecks. It was a dominant display full of lion-hearted spirit and not short of class with lots of pressing possession football.
Many managers dismiss us as a physical team who like the long ball option but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have some superb footballers in the centre of the park who have the vision and creativity to pick out a pass. Revell may be in the ‘big target man’ mould but he’s not our only outlet. Maybe it’s a hangover from the Ronnie Moore days when we had a team of giants. Or perhaps it’s what people expect from a Steve Evans team.
What I do know is that we are gaining a habit for causing upsets against teams from higher divisions which is undoubtedly a product of Evans’ and chairman Tony Stewart’s philosophy to buy players capable of cutting it in the Championship, our eventual destination. Wednesday were dispatched with time to spare. Notts County were played off the park last year at Meadow Lane. Who knows what could happen at Villa Park? It certainly won’t be boring!
Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger
Michael tweets at @mikew_83