Momentum is one of the holy grails of football. Players strive for it. Managers crave it. Fans get swept along by its promise and get carried away by it. Rotherham United had it in spades following their five match winning streak at the end of last season which sent them soaring up to League One.
The trick was to keep the feel-good factor ticking over – and with a fickle bunch like our supporters that was asking a lot. Whilst the team surprised many in the first half of the season, Steve Evans knew his team had the inner-strength to maintain a promotion challenge in the final months when it mattered.
And challenge they have! An exhilarating and almost record-breaking run of 16 games without defeat put the Millers into an extremely handy position of third going into two tough looking Yorkshire derbies against Sheffield United and Bradford City. Several 90th minute winners and devastating performances against well-fancied teams – particularly away from home where Rotherham had been irresistible and boasting an unbeaten Tuesday night record going back to August – had secured a playoff place that no-one gave them a chance of claiming.
Such is the standard set by the teams in the thick of the League One promotion race, an unbeaten run like this would normally put most clubs at the summit but this only moved the Millers up from sixth to third. The pace set by other challengers has been staggering…until they’ve turned up at New York Stadium that is. Leyton Orient, Brentford and Bristol City all arrived with fearsome records and bags of confidence, and were promptly sent back down the M1 with their tails between their legs.
It took a while for some fans to be won over by Evans and the players he has acquired, but they are certainly on board now. This Rotherham team are a pleasure to watch and have passion running right through it, with honest endeavour and character matched by quality and composure on the ball.
Evans brought in some loan players in January to shore up key areas of the park, including Richie Smallwood from Middlesbrough whose performances in the ‘water carrier’ role have allowed the likes of Lee Frecklington and Ben Pringle to bomb forward and support the attack. Newcastle loanee James Tavernier will be a contender for player of the season for his contribution from right back, particularly for the pace he has added arriving late in the box and his set pieces providing many highlights.
Much was made early season about the apparent lack of goals in the side but Kieran Agard has stepped up following his heroics at the end of last season and has been a revelation, his 21 goals helping Rotherham to be one of the most prolific teams in the Football League. The performance level has been so great that even highly-rated Premier League players like Haris Vuckic struggle to get a start.
As I have said on a few occasions in this blog, many fans believed we had a squad that could trouble a few teams in this league. But I don’t think there will be a sizeable proportion who thought the progression would be this speedy. And with each passing victory, expectations have rocketed along with the league position. Most would expect the club to be pleased with our lot now and be patiently waiting out the final few games for our part in the end of season lottery.
But Rotherham’s ambition these days knows no limit. Second-placed Brentford were a considerable nine points ahead after the win at Gillingham which put us at the top of the playoff pack but fans still had the memory of their team tearing into the Bees’ defence in March fresh in their minds – a performance so dominating that it had begun to affect the West London club’s form.
Rotherham therefore travelled the short trip to the Steel City on a high to take on a club which has mostly cast a large shadow over the Millers for many years. Although the Blades are having a tough time of it at the moment (aside from their impressive Cup run) and so, in addition to presenting a chance to stay on the coattails of Brentford, it was an opportunity to show the tide had turned in this part of South Yorkshire.
Except our heroes had not read the script. Our trademark high-octane start was absent and the players appeared to be caught up in the occasion rather than focusing on the game. Our talisman Frecklington, so often the link between defence and attack, was absent through injury and once again we were under-par without him. Lazy aerial balls were being launched as we got sucked into copying the tactics of the opposition and the game ended up being a disappointment as a contest.
Personally though, any injustice felt by the penalty decision which gave United the points was vastly outweighed by an enormous sense of pride in the team for their efforts in keeping the run going as long as they did. Our first outing at New York under the Sky cameras against Bradford was more like our usual self, but once again we lacked the rhythm, fluency in possession and goal threat that previous games had revealed Rotherham to possess.
The worry now is that we may have peaked too early. That lung-busting 16 game run, as tremendous as it was could be said to have taken its toll on our small squad. The manager has put on record his reluctance to rotate players around but he has indicated he will take opportunities to rest some our key players in the remaining games if he feels they will benefit. Effectively the last four games are a mini ‘pre-season’ now where we can hopefully enable Pringle and Frecklington, who have been virtually ever-present this season, some much needed time on the sidelines and give Vuckic, Tom Hitchcock and Michael O’Connor a glut of games so they are nice and sharp when the playoffs commence in May.
So the mood in the camp I think is cautiously optimistic. But that momentum needs to be built back up again slowly but surely. Starting with the small task of beating Wolves at Molineux on Friday – after all we are good at being party poopers!
Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger
Michael tweets at @mikew_83