I was confident of us ‘having a go’ this season with the team we have, as in, not being content to sit back and consolidate our position in the third tier, but rather to use our strength and flair in midfield to dominate our opponents and help maintain a presence in the top half of the table.
Yet I didn’t expect this. The Millers go into 2014 occupying 6th place, just inside the playoff berths, and do so having collected numerous points away from home with commanding performances at Notts County, Stevenage, Coventry and Bristol City. According to sportingintelligence.com, in the calendar year of 2012, Rotherham came 12th in terms of their points per game collected in league games, making them one of the best performing league clubs in England last year. We’ve been in this situation before, being the surprise package under the stewardship of Ronnie Moore in 1999 following promotion from the old Division 3, but then we were rank underdogs. Many pundits gave us a chance this year. I knew that the team was good enough, and that New York Stadium with its intimidating atmosphere would stand us in good stead, although this fine start to life in League One has took many fans by surprise.
Not so Steve Evans. As my last article highlighted, big Steve is not short of confidence in himself, his staff or his players, and true to form he has stated recently that he is not satisfied with our current position as he thinks we could have done better in some games. Whilst I don’t dispute this claim, it seems harsh to criticise this team at all given the euphoric promotion win in May and the relative consistency in performance for a group of players that have largely been bought by Evans since his appointment in April 2012 and which is subject to a considerable degree of jiggery pokery when it comes to the starting lineup.
Whilst some of this change-around in playing staff can be blamed on injuries and suspensions, it could be argued that the majority of it is because Evans is still unsure of his first-choice starting eleven. However, I’m not sure this is true as Steve has said on a number of occasions that this squad is the finest he has ever worked with and that they all possess the attributes he seeks – passion, quality, but above all desire and commitment. I share the manager’s view, although these bold claims are often undone by the decisions he makes such as the loaning out (or freezing out) of former key players to be replaced by loan players who we have no reasonable chance of retaining on a permanent basis. It seems a wonder to me sometimes that our team spirit is so high!
Despite our success thus far, I think the pursuit of quality over quantity in the Summer and the aforementioned loan policy has left our squad looking very thin in key areas, particularly in the centre of defence. Former club captain Johnny Mullins was sent packing after winning promotion and we were left with the not-so-dependable Claude Davis as backup to our first-choice pairing of Kari Arnason and new skipper Craig Morgan. The Arnason-Morgan partnership has been rock solid although recent events have exposed the problems we have at the back. Pablo Mills rejoined the club after impressing on trial in August but was only ever seen as a stand-in and has now left to join Bury. Davis and Morgan managed to get themselves sent off in consecutive games and so that just left casual Kari as our one recognised centre back to face Crewe. Eek. Evans has since acted swiftly to acquire Miles Addison’s services from Bournemouth on loan so hopefully he’ll provide more competition.
Further up the pitch, the midfield continues to be the area where the Millers have strength in depth, so much so we can afford to deny our summer signings David Worrall and Michael Tidser a regular starting place! Worrall was a key player on the right wing for Rotherham in August and September but has had several injury setbacks, whilst Tidser is generally seen as one for the future and has appeared to be content to play second fiddle to Michael O’Connor, Lee Frecklington and Rob Milsom. Worrall has unfortunately now been loaned out to Oldham – and with Evans’ past form in this area, this may mean the young winger will not play for us again, as Kayode Odejayi, Lionel Ainsworth, David Noble and Daniel Nardiello will testify! Tidser has also been farmed out to SPL outfit Ross County to get his match fitness up. I really hope we see these two back at New York soon.
So we may have an abundance of talent in midfield, although the team continues to lack a genuine goalscorer up front. Nardiello was our top scorer last year, averaging more than a goal every 2 games, although Evans was unimpressed with his workrate and sent him out on loan to Bury along with new recruit Danny Hylton who needed to improve his fitness. Nardiello has extended his loan and may make it permanent at Gigg Lane which is a shame given that we are missing his eye for goal. Alex Revell is a crowd favourite with many for his blood-and-guts approach but this can only get you so far and the clamour to get Matt Tubbs in on loan did not provide anywhere near the level of returns expected – the former Crawley man returning to Bournemouth after scoring a solitary goal. Evans has further experimented with the loan market for strikers, turning to Bolton beanpole Tom Eaves for inspiration which was moderately successful, although by far the biggest impact was made by Nouha Dicko, a French striker from Wigan Athletic. Only in town for a month, Dicko was a sensation, scoring 4 goals in 5 appearances and giving this creative team some much needed pace and cutting edge which – if only Wigan hadn’t recalled him to warm their Executive Lounge seats over the festive period, could well be the difference in ensuring the Millers remain as promotion contenders.
This will be a crucial and very interesting transfer window for Rotherham United, and the signs are that the chairman is only too willing to chase our targets in pursuit of a second successive promotion. The two matches I managed to attend over Christmas and New Year revealed a lot about where we are as a team going into the business end of the season, not least who our key players are and where we need to improve. Our frustrating afternoon at Port Vale showed how much we missed Frecklington’s engine and inventiveness in the middle of the park, and whilst he was quiet against the Valiants, Ben Pringle’s absence was clear for all to see against Coventry and it is not surprising that many Championship clubs are keeping a close eye on the ginger talisman and his left foot.
We continue to be a tough outfit to break down but are very vulnerable to pace on the counter attack. The creativity, guile and passing ability in midfield ensure Rotherham often swamp opposing teams for possession of the ball but this is too often punished at the other end when we fail to hammer home our advantage. Evans continues to rely heavily on loan players to plug the gaps, and in some cases this has been to good effect, particularly with Dicko and also with the introduction of Newcastle loanees Haris Vuckic and James Tavernier who have added undoubted quality to our attack through the middle and out wide. But we are still missing that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ up front (see what I did there?) and it is an issue all Millers fans know we need to address. Does anyone have the mobile number for a certain Frenchman?
Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger
Michael tweets at @mikew_83