David Cameron Walker

Archive for the ‘Rotherham United’ Category

Relentless Reds back in the second tier

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

IMG_1768Well, 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

Time to start believing

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Let’s face it – and I’ve said it often enough – this Rotherham team keep surprising us.  A joint 3rd finish in the League (OK it was 4th but that sounds better!), exhilarating football, beating local rivals fair and square, giving Champions Wolves a scare in a 10-goal thriller – there have been many highlights this season after which most onlookers might have said ‘Yeh but they’ll fall away soon’.

Steve Evans has been sure to tell us that there are naysayers amongst League One managers that think we’re not good enough for the Play-offs.  I’ve been guilty of a bit of pessimism at times, wondering whether the latest away day triumph will be our last.  And I confess to having looked at the play-off finalists and thinking ‘Whatever happens it’s been a good season’.  But now I’m beginning to believe we might just have enough in our locker to prevail.  I know I don’t speak for all Millers fans but it’s about time we put any doubts to the back of our minds and let the intoxicating and unwavering spirit that our lads have in abundance rub off on us.

It’s ‘half-time’ in the Millers’ semi-final Play-off campaign with Preston North End, and though the teams are evenly matched after a pulsating 1-1 draw, there are plenty of positives we can take from Saturday evening.

The nerves were jangling aplenty when we took our seats at a raucous Deepdale.  The Lilywhites, despite losing at Crewe on the last day, had warmed up nicely for this 1st leg with a few goal-laden home games, including a 6-1 and a 5-2 against relegated Carlisle and Shrewsbury respectively.  The Twitter feeds were buzzing with the news that League One Player of the Month for April Kieran Agard was not in the match-day 18.  Neither side had given an inch in the two league games with both finishing as draws – therefore the first goal in this tie you felt could be crucial.  Wes Thomas kept his place after grabbing a brace at Swindon.

The tension in the ground was palpable as the teams kicked off, and this transferred onto the pitch in the early stages.  Possession changed hands frequently and any quality on display was taking a while to show itself.  It was Rotherham though who gradually got a grip of the game as they started to get hold of the ball in the middle and cause the home side some problems.  It was a trademark lightening counter attack that led to the opener though as Ben Pringle collected a ricochet and lobbed the ball towards Alex Revell.  The no. 9 flicked it on but inexplicably ran after it (for possibly the first time this season) leaving Jack King for dead and with all the confidence in the world slammed it under the dive of Declan Rudd.  11 goals now then for big Alex who, when he does score, celebrates like he’s won the World Cup – and good on him!

Revell’s goal came at a key moment as the natives were getting restless, and it was a terrific solo effort fitting for the Sky Sports cameras – except that, as has been well-documented – Joe Garner decided to go one better.  In the first half, Rotherham had nullified any threat North End possessed up front with Garner and ex-Barnsley forward Craig Davies feeding off scraps.  An onslaught was expected in the second 45 minutes with Preston kicking towards their home fans and it duly came.  But no clear-cut chances had been carved out until Garner took a high ball on his chest, flicked it over Kari Arnason and curled an outrageous and ferocious volley into the net leaving Adam Collin with no chance.  Out of nothing, a goal of the season contender had broken down our stubborn resistance.

Such a goal would lift any team and the worry was that they would add to their tally and put the game out of sight.  But this Millers team doesn’t lie down, it rolls its sleeves up.  Much of Preston’s threat was coming down from the flanks usually through Gallagher – but even then James Tavernier, moving to right-back after Richard Brindley had his semi-final cut short, had been terrific in closing down Gallagher’s space on the left, forcing him to come inside and cross with his right foot nearly every time.  Their wonder goal aside, PNE were restricted to very few chances of note with grey shirts swamping the man in possession and always looking to turn for the counter.  Considering we had our top-scorer out and many were playing out of position as injuries piled up, this has to be a cause for optimism – the squad has depth in each position and the togetherness and will-to-win runs right through the camp.

Thomas had played like he had been up top with Revell all season, and was easily my man of the match, always proving a willing runner and linking up well with Lee Frecklington and Pringle.  It was Thomas’s through ball that led to our best chance to win it when he set up Frecklington for a one-on-one chance you would expect him to gobble up.  His bad touch meant the keeper could parry it away and Lee’s stretch for the ball led to him hobbling off early.  Claude Davis replaced him and did a sterling job marking the minimal danger posed by an out-of-sorts Kevin Davies – and by keeping himself on the pitch (!).  Rob Milsom had been very steady in midfield helping to stunt any build-up of attacks from deep and almost grabbed himself a goal after a flowing 4-man move.  Haris Vuckic also demonstrated his growing reputation by showing some clever flicks and forcing Rudd into a late save.

So it was all smiles in the away end after another spirited gutsy away display from the Millers.  If I was a Preston fan though I’d be disappointed by my team’s showing.  A near-capacity crowd, at full-strength and no advantage to show for it ahead of a trip to New York Stadium.  PNE’s away form has been patchy at best since March and Rotherham have been unbeaten at home since the turn of the year. So plenty to feel chipper about, even if the place will be a bag of nerves.

Evans of course is doing all he can to take the pressure off his team. Ahead of the Deepdale trip the mantra was ‘we are rank underdogs’ and now the word is that half our first team are doubtful to make the squad. Agard is still struggling, Frecklington has a knee injury, Pringle and Adams are unlikely to feature.  Is this true or is he trying to wind up Simon Grayson?  Who knows.  But whichever way, this team works best when the chips are down.  Believe.

Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger

Michael tweets at @mikew_83

Target secured but have we peaked too soon?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

31969756Momentum 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

Millers continue to upset the odds

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

ND

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

The Steve Evans effect: for better or for worse?

Friday, October 11th, 2013

SE

I reckon most football fans would answer ‘for worse’ to the above question – not least because of the histrionics that the pantomime villain of the lower leagues often displays on the touchline.

On the other hand, whatever approach Evans takes – it gets results.  Our 13 game unbeaten run including five wins at the end of last season has come to an end due to ‘Champions elect’ Peterborough taking all three points in a smash and grab victory at New York Stadium. Good teams usually respond, and respond they did with highly-fancied Brentford beaten on their own patch 1-0 and a routine 3-0 win at York City in the JPT on Tuesday with much of the usual first team missing.  We are now sat in 6th place and in the quarter finals with a reasonable chance of a Wembley appearance.

Many would argue that Steve’s abrasive style and questionable history of financial mismanagement, foul-mouthed tirades and all-round unpleasantness has brought the game into disrepute and therefore he shouldn’t be allowed to manage a team again.  This chequered past often colours the judgements of my friends and other people I meet when I tell them I’m a Rotherham fan.  All they can think of is the red-faced rotund loudmouth when in charge of Boston United and Crawley Town instead of the family-friendly working class lower league club that most fans may identify with.

I often reply to these people that I can only consider how Evans has performed whilst being manager of RUFC.  Yes, he’s passionate, he’s an ‘in your face’ character with plenty to say about his team and our fans, and of other teams and their fans.  But the key thing that seems to have changed since the days when he made the headlines for the wrong reasons is that this passion and over-zealousness has been used to good effect rather than ill.  Emotion still pours out of him but when we were promoted that was in te form of tears in front of the media rather than vitriol.  Gone are the confrontations with referees and altercations with opposition managers and players which he was famous for.  He still challenges every decision from his dugout but there is no malice in his post-match interviews.  He pays the opposition a lot of respect both pre and post-match – OK there may have the odd dig here and there, especially at local rivals, but I for one prefer managers to have a bit of character about them and not sound like they’re reading from a script.  The problem with Evans is that he is afforded little leeway to do so because of his past demeanours.

Unfortunately, the big man’s past still plagues him and his reputation even now as Millers boss.  After ten games with us he received a 6 match ban for the ‘Battle of Valley Parade’ whilst in charge of Crawley which coincided with our poor run of form last September (and arguably cost us a chance of giving Gillingham more competition for the title).  Evans has used his extensive list of contacts and scouting network to keep tabs on potential transfer targets – although very few of them actually come to fruition.  He talks a lot about needing to find the players that want to play for the club and are not going to destroy the camaraderie and togetherness within the squad – but is the real reason that the manager’s reputation is preceding him and is costing the club the chance to progress?

I don’t believe this is the case at all (especially considering our league position!) but it is an interesting point.  The refereeing decisions now we are back in League One are no better than in League Two (arguably worse), and it is not hard to see why the officials may favour the side playing us due to Evans and Paul Raynor doing their ‘hopping mad’ dance in front of the dugout whenever we are on the wrong end of them.  A case in point is our last home game against the Posh which the Millers dominated for large spells and had several shots on goal but lost 1-0 thanks to a controversial penalty.  The referee booked five of our players, none of theirs, and let many of Peterborough’s players get away with rash tackles and some blatant time-wasting towards the end of the game.

Some sections of the media refuse to give us credit for our successes under him.  All the focus in May was on Gillingham and Bradford for their achievements in winning promotion, and even this season the Football League Show would prefer to gush over the Bantams and will only give us praise through gritted teeth (I’m looking at you, Manish).  Our superb new stadium has been open for over 12 months and the Sky Sports cameras have not even been inside yet – why would this be?  I wonder!

But the reality is that Steve Evans is a very different man from his Boston and Crawley days.  Millers fans were divided on news of his appointment in March 2012, with many questioning the chairman’s sanity in his desperation to get Rotherham promoted.  Now the locals are singing his name and there are rumours from across the M1 that Blades fans want him to replace David Weir after their horror start to the season at Sheffield United.  Maybe he’s turned a corner…

Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger

Michael tweets at @mikew_83

Anything but dull at RUFC

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

RUFC

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

The Millers rollercoaster hurtles on

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

RUFC

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.  7 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 1 in 2 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

We are top of the League….

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

After a disappointing ending to last season, not helped by our continued exile from our home town… things are finally looking up. Plans for the new Rotherham United Stadium are underway and more importantly things on the pitch are going in our favour. Opening proceedings with a 1-0 home victory at the Don Valley Stadium against a resilient Oxford United side was just what the millers needed. Plenty of new faces on view mixed with some of the old provided an entertaining game, which ultimately I feel we deserved to take all three points. The winning goal in that game provided by debutant Lewis Grabban, who joined over the summer from Andy Scott’s former club Brentford. Hopefully this will be the first of many for a player who looks to have a promising future for the millers.

Winning your opening game can provide the sort of lift you need when facing a long trip to the South West the following week. The hosts on this occasion Plymouth Argyle, who are facing plenty of their own problems off the pitch. unfortunately something in the modern game which has become more frequent, which us millers are certainly no strangers to ourselves. Ultimately from my experience, the football continues with the games coming thick and fast. You can only hope for a speedy resolution.

The Millers successfully carried the momentum to the South West and came away with a resounding 4-1 win. Two goals from another new signing Gareth Evans, and two from Adam Le Fondre securing another three points. I was unfortunately unable to attend this game, although I am reliably informed that 232 Millers did make the long gruelling trip.

All in all a prefect start to the season, leaving us at this very early stage top of the league with only 44 games remaining. Joking aside the performances look very encouraging, which is the main thing to be looking at two games in to a new season. The already mentioned Lewis Grabban and Gareth Evans look promising acquisitions along with midfielder Danny Schofield brought in from Millwall, who has shown excellent skill and composure so far.

Most of the talk at the moment is concerning our longstanding Number 10, Adam Le Fondre. He has so far been linked with several clubs including local rivals Sheffield Wednesday and nearby Scunthorpe. Speculation has surrounded ‘Alfie’ for some time now, but as long as he is putting the ball in the back of the net in a red shirt I don’t mind. Recently singled out for praise by manager Andy Scott for putting in a higher work rate since the start of the new season, its easy to see where the praise has come from. His work rate from the front has been an inspiration to the rest of the side, rewarded this week with a brace against Plymouth Argyle. Adam Le Fondre will score goals wherever he goes in my opinion, he is a natural finisher with an ability supported by his own goal scoring record.

Praise has to go to Andy Scott for the way he has handled himself so far, in both the recruitment of new players and the handling of the ones already on the books. After the sacking of Ronnie Moore last season the club needed some re-direction in my eyes, and so far Scott seems to be fitting the bill. Ronnie Moore will always be held in high regard by Rotherham United supporters for his past achievements with the club, but the club was crying out for a fresh outlook.

In more news, the building work on the new Stadium has now started and the Millers should be set to move in to the new stadium for the start of the 2012/13 season. This day can’t come soon enough in my opinion, as it is vital that football is brought back in to Rotherham. This should attract new supporters and bring back old supporters who have been unwilling/unable to travel to the Don Valley Stadium.

So……. Top of the League!!!! Things are looking up.

Up The Millers!

Written by Neil Morris, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger

Neil tweets at @NeilMorris_