Millers match verdict: Leeds United 0 Rotherham United 0

Sombrero Steve. Picture: Paul Wickson
Sombrero Steve. Picture: Paul Wickson

It started at Derby County in front of a 30,000-plus crowd. It finished in front of another gathering of more than 30,000 against Leeds United.

In between, Rotherham United stunned some of the big boys of the Championship, were taught a lesson by one or two others, were docked three points by the Football League and their manager became known as Sombrero Steve.

Sombrero fans

Sombrero fans

The important thing at the end of this crazy campaign is that the Millers will get to do it all again next year - and against both of the former champions of England who bookended their season - after surviving their first experience of the second tier for nearly a decade.

Mission accomplished.

The last day of the season at the home of Yorkshire’s biggest club was academic in football terms, with both teams already safe, Rotherham making light of their FL punishment by securing their status on Tuesday on the best of all the great nights under the lights at AESSEAL New York Stadium, against Reading.

So why were the cameras out in such force? Well, that was all down to the man in the hat.

Sombrero Steve again

Sombrero Steve again

Rotherham boss Steve Evans had said on the eve of the Reading showdown he’d be wearing sombrero and shorts the morning after, whatever the weather, if his side won.

They did, and the combination of a Sky TV social-media campaign and a twillion tweets did the rest.

He emerged from the team coach like a film star, climbing down the steps, giving a wave to waiting fans and then being escorted into the ground by a phalanx of officials as cameramen snapped away and then fell over themselves to chase down the Millers manager and start their high-speed clicking again.

It’s fair to say Showman Steve, trending on Twitter for the umpteenth time in a week, was in his element. #PureHollywood.

What, no sombreros?

What, no sombreros?

You’ve all seen the photographs: Sponsored sombrero which was raising money for charity, natty long shorts, flip-flops and a green T-shirt which I’m pretty sure made it’s public bow in the Parkgate FC v Rotherham friendly way back in the mists of time of July last year before this amazing season truly began.

It didn’t look good on him then either! Only joking, Sombrero Steve.

Said the man in the spotlight: “Like I do, sometimes I open my trap and say things, and the next day I wake up to a swirling demand to do it.

“I’ve had a lot of pledges. Nigel Pearson, the manager at Leicester City, saw it on television and messaged me pledging some cash as well. It will go to a very worthy cause. If it helps just one kid in Rotherham, I don’t mind being Sombrero Idiot for the day.

“It was fantasically well received by everyone at Leeds, including manager Neil Redfearn, and I hope Redders is in charge when we come here next season.”

Happily, despite his outfit, Evans and the Millers weren’t already on their end-of-season jollies. By the time kick-off came, the manager was back in his regulation club blazer and smart grey trousers and his players were in anything other than holiday mood.

They were the better team in the first half and by the interval were doing most of the pressing, but Matt Derbyshire and Danny Ward, such significant contributors in recent matches, didn’t have their best days, working themselves into good positions numerous times but then failiing to really ask questions of the home defence.

Centre-half Sol Bamba was a rock in the Leeds backline early on but a booking turned him into Bamba on thin ice and as his influence faded so Rotherham’s grew.

Bamba had blocked a 19th-minute Ward shot before the otherwise impressive Daniel Lafferty headed over Lee Frecklington’s inviting cross, a fierce Ward shot was heading goalwards before it poleaxed Derbyshire, leaving Evans to lament the indavertent intervention of his striker’s “14-inch nose”, while Frecklington should have done better than a tame shot when he threatened in the 40th minute.

“I think we played particularly well. We go away probably unlucky not to win. We passed it, we moved it around. We should have been a couple up at the interval,” Evans said,

“You can’t ask any more when they’re already safe than for them to show the same application they have had all season, and they did that today. I’ve often said - and I say it more privately than publicly - I’m immensely proud of every one of them.”

Redfearn’s team - whose most dangerous first-half moments were a 31st-minute shooting chance for Charlie Taylor brilliantly thwarted by a Kari Arnason tackle and a long-range Rudy Austin shot - improved after the break but could find no way past goalkeeper Emi Martinez, who saved from Austin and Bamba, and the Millers’ collective defensive effort.

Rotherham substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris fizzed one of the hardest-hit free-kicks I’ve ever seen just wide at the death and, in terms of football, that was it.

At the final whistle the sombrero found its way back on to Evans’ head as he saluted the 2,000-plus travelling Millers faithful, many of whom were sporting Mexican headwear themselves.

Even the notoriously hostile home supporters, who had spent some of the first half loudly and offensively querying Evans’ missing millinery only to be won over by his humorous response, joined in the applause. Yep, Hollywood just loves a happy ending.

Evans was in fine form afterwards, turning questions here and there back to the subject of his new favourite fashion accessory, but also speaking eloquently and passionately about what has been achieved in his three seasons at the club and what the next three may hold.

“It’s almost the start of a new two or three-year plan,” he said. “Three years ago I came into the football club and I’ll never forget the wry smile on (chairman) Tony Stewart’s face when he said ‘talk me through where we’ll be in three years’ time’.

“I actually said to him ‘you’ll be just having had a season in the Championship’. He shook his head, and had a little chuckle as he did, and puffed on his big cigar. We’ve got that far. There’s lots more we have to do.”

The final-day fun shouldn’t detract from the magnificent Millers achievement of staying up, particularly when survival was already almost in the bag only to be snatched away when points were taken from them by the authorities for fielding an ineligible player.

Just how Evans and his squad coped with that setback can wait for another feature and another day, but the fact that they never lost a match after the FL charge was announced and they ended the season on a four-match unbeaten run says everything about their spirit.

So the Ipro and Elland Road await season, when Evans, having learned so much in his first year at this level, will have the Millers stronger and better equipped for the challenge.

You can hang your hat on that.

Leeds United (4-1-4-1): S Taylor 6; Wootton 6, Bamba 6, Cooper 7, Berardi 6 (Sharp 56, 6); Austin 7; Byram 6, Mowatt (White 71) 6, Murphy 6, C Taylor 6; Morison ( Montenegro 81) 5. Subs not used: Cairns, Phillips, Ngoyi, Sloth.

Rotherham United (4-4-2): Martinez 8; Wilson 6, Morgan 8, Wood 8, Lafferty 8; Frecklington 6 (Green 72), Smallwood 7, Arnason 7, Pringle 6; Derbyshire 5 (Clarke-Harris 60, 5), Ward 6(Bowery 53, 5). Subs not used: Milsom, Newton, Collin, Hammill.

Manager’s view - Steve Evans: “I looked at the Millers fans in sombreros today. The only time I got a close-up of that was when I went over at the end. I’ve always said I’m very humbled to be managing at this football club. Look at the names who were here before me ... our own Tommy Docherty, Ian Porterfield, Emlyn Hughes, Ronnie Moore. There are some fantastic names, and I’m just proud I’ve managed a football club with names of that ilk.”

Manager’s view - Neil Redfearn: “Yes, definitely today was emotional (Leeds fans chanted his name throughout the match). You say you deal with the stress and all that, but it has been stressful. It’s been a tough season. The last thing you want is to have Leeds United in the bottom three, so we’ve had to really dig deep and come up with the answers. Thankfully they have been the right answers.”

Hero: Emi Martinez. What a loan signing the Arsenal goalkeeper has been. Has made the Millers defence a more confident and assured unit since his arrival on the eve of the Sheffield Wednesday derby. Great hands, shot-stopping, decision-making and distribution. Would love to see him back.

Key moment: Before kick-off when Steve Evans changed back into his usual matchday fatigues. Meant that everyone got to have their sombrero moments early doors and that the integrity of a serious football match was maintained. Just the right approach.

Viewpoint: Evans has admitted to making mistakes earlier in the season, and no manager learns faster from them. Survival was everything this year. “Midtable looking upwards” is Evans’ next stated aim, and don’t bet against the man who has pledged his future to the Millers achieving it.

Referee watch: Andy D’Urso (Essex). Classy. Blew when he had to, let the game run when he could. Steve Evans never mentioned him afterwards and compliments don’t come much bigger.

Attendance: 31,850 (2,477).