Well, how do you sum up a season like that? Championship football beckons for the Millers but fans will be entitled to scratch their heads in disbelief at what has happened – not just this campaign but over the last six years. There were certainly plenty of jaded and perplexed looks amongst the hordes hugging strangers and swaying to ‘New York, New York’ in the celebrations afterwards. I confess to having a grin the size of the Wembley arch for much of the following week. I must apologise to my work colleagues for that.
To go from the very real possibility of going out of existence to the two back-to-back promotions via being homeless for four years and the bright new dawn of New York Stadium has been nothing short of staggering. Rotherham United have quite literally been reborn under Tony Stewart and I was so pleased to see him hold aloft the trophy after all the tireless work he has put in. But of course Steve Evans deserves a lot of praise too, he’s known nothing but success for the last four years and if it wasn’t for his colourful history I’m sure we’d have a job on our hands keeping him at the club.
In my last blog I called on fellow fans to start believing in this team if they did not already (probably hypocritical of me in hindsight!), as we looked forward with trepidation to the second leg of our semi-final with Preston North End. We needn’t have worried. This team has spirit and desire, we know that, but it also has matchwinners all over the park. 1-0 down early on after losing concentration at a Paul Gallagher free kick? We re-group, Ben Pringle gives a masterclass in crossing the ball – we win 3-1.
Two goals down at Wembley and staring down the barrel of defeat? They come out for the second half fired up and are back on terms by the hour mark – thanks to a brace and a howitzer of an equaliser from Alex Revell. Approaching the penalty shootout with players dead on their feet and miss our second penalty? Adam Collin becomes our unlikely hero with two stunning saves to turn around our fortunes once again, but this time with a decisive blow.
OPTA stats have revealed that Rotherham this last year have recovered the most points from losing positions in League One, describing this as ‘relentless’. I couldn’t agree more. We had no real right to come back from 3-1 down at Crewe on the opening day but sure enough we did. All the last minute goals that flew in were crucial to us keeping up the pace, the Revell winner against Leyton Orient at home in February being a particular watershed moment.
So, the Championship. What can we expect? We have been at this level on a few occasions in our history, most recently for 4 years from 2001 to 2005, but never for too long before we tend to tumble back down again. The difference between this time and the Ronnie Moore era though is that the club is now an altogether more enterprising package. I recall a period two seasons into our stay in the old Division One when Alan Lee and Darren Byfield were striking up a fine partnership between them and we sat in 6th spot in February – and many were calling for our chairman at the time, the late Ken Booth, to get his hand in his pocket to help sustain the challenge.
Of course he didn’t and we were relegated the following season. Then we were at a crumbling Millmoor when funds were tight and prospects were slim. Now we have a new stadium with room to expand, some money to spend and bags of potential. The model to follow for lower league clubs looking to progress is most definitely Swansea City, who also came back from the brink before their ascent from the basement to the Premier League. Why shouldn’t Rotherham be next? Tony Stewart for one dares to dream.
The signings we are already making indicate to me at least that we don’t intend on just making the numbers up. Not since Mark Robins played for us can I remember being wowed by a ‘name’ signing as with Matt Derbyshire. He certainly knows where the net is and he’s what you’d call a seasoned pro at this level. Add to that the solid acquisition of Scott Loach in goal and promising youngster Conor Newton in midfield and I think we’ve set the barometer reassuringly high for the type of player we’re looking to capture, and are capable of getting. Top of the shopping list are the talents of James Tavernier and Richie Smallwood who were outstanding loan recruits for us last season – and if the papers are to be believed – SPL goal-getter Stevie May, who we might have to break our transfer record to sign. Evans does like getting his business done early, so the next week or so will be interesting.
Of course I’m under no illusion about the size of the task ahead of us, a glance at the grounds we will be gracing next year is enough to send a shiver up the spine, many of them not long since hosting Premiership football. It is hard though not to shake off the optimism that comes with winning games, or to not be swayed by Evans’ boundless enthusiasm and passion for the game. And it’s a fact that there won’t be many teams looking forward to play us.
It is clear to many Millers fans that our sharp rise up the leagues is making some sit up and take notice, whilst others look on with envy. I’ve no doubt that the increase in exposure that the Championship generates will bring with it more vitriol towards our club, the lion’s share aimed at our manager. Our not-so-illustrious neighbours already delight in calling us Toytown, and I think the small fish in a big pond thing will be a factor we will relish facing up to – especially in the big games where we will be nailed on to not get a 90th minute penalty at Elland Road.
And let’s face it, Evans still gets up a lot of people’s noses. It seems as though the sight of him running down the touchline Mourinho-style at Wembley with his trousers defying gravity and flab in tow was too much for some stomachs during teatime viewing!
Come August it’ll be time to prove everyone wrong again. Bring it on.
Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger
Michael tweets at @mikew_83