If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ...
Rotherham United manager Steve Evans had called for a calm approach before the most important match of the club’s season, a relegation six-pointer with Millwall which could have a huge bearing on both sides’ fight for Championship survival.
At half-time, it wasn’t going well. The Millers were a goal down and if either set of fans could be described as agitated it was the home supporters, not the 1,309 travelling ones, some of whom would later go on to shame themselves and their club.
On a day which would see stewards injured, riot squads holding Lions fans at bay, bricks thrown, windscreens smashed, terrified families running for safety and police helicopters whirring over AESSEAL New York Stadium, Evans kept his head.
At the interval - echoing the qualities lauded in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, If - he changed nothing.
“We got the boys back in the classroom and the teacher had to stand up and speak. I said to them ‘Just relax. I’ll stand in front of you whatever happens today’,” he revealed.
“I thought a lot of our performance was good in the first half. I had to remind them of that.
“We’re the team who’s played the football, we’re the team who’s passed it through midfield and out wide and tried to get crosses into the box. It was a very calm and measured talk at half-time.”
Two minutes into the second half, Rotherham were level and the course of the game - possibly the entire season - had changed for good.
Evans’ men, galvanised by Danny Ward’s equaliser, were on top in the second period and Kari Arnason’s headed winner with five minutes left on the clock brought wonderful pandemonium in the home stands.
Disgracefully, it was the cue for pandemonium of an altogether different kind in the away end as Millwall fans, watching their side be cut six points adrift in the battle to stay in the second tier, launched vicious and concerted efforts to invade areas of the ground reserved for home followers - including the packed family enclosure contained sons and daughters and mums and dads.
Thankfully, the yellow lines of riot police and stewards kept them at bay.
Evans, after an afternoon where he got everything right, responded with the perfect message at the final whistle, even though he’d been focused on the game to such an extent he didn’t know exactly what had kicked off in the South Stand and obviously knew nothing at the time about the violence which flared outside New York as the Millwall mob were being escorted out.
“I don’t know what’s gone on today so I’m speaking blind on this,” he said.
“But if it’s untoward then the authorities will deal with that appropriately. There’s no excuse for it in football, is there?”
Ah, football. Let’s now concentrate on that. It would be easy to forget, in the heat of what occurred off the pitch, just how vital this match was to both teams.
Lose and the Millers would have been dragged into the heart of the fight to stay up. Win and a big, big gap now opens up between them in 21st place and Millwall who occupy the third and final relegation spot in 22nd.
“You would rather have a six-point gap than be level with Millwall,” Evans said.
“We don’t kid ourselves this is anything more than three points. Nothing has been settled today in any shape or form, and I’d be saying that if it had gone against us today.
“We’ve both got difficult games on Tuesday. Nothing will be settled on Tuesday but it would be nice if we could get another three points in front of our supporters who deserve to see us win here because they’re stunning.”
The home fans, appreciating the significance of the occasion as much as Evans and his players, did indeed back their team to the hilt.
They were stunned into temporary silence in the 20th minute when Martyn Woolford latched on to Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s header across goal to loft the ball over Adam Collin, but generated the kind of boiling, bouncing, impassioned communal backing that true fans so wonderfully bring to the sport.
“I can never pay enough compliments to our supporters. I had asked them publicly in the week that if it went against us to stick with us,” Evans added.
“The nice thing they did was the rousing reception at the start of the second half.
“A couple of the Millwall lads who I knew privately - and their names will remain private - have been talking about the noise levels when the winner went in.”
By the way, it’s 15th-placed Cardiff City at home for Rotherham tomorrow. promotion-chasing Middlesbrough away for Millwall.
The Millers should have fallen 2-0 behind in the 37th minute when Lee Gregory got between Rotherham’s central defenders from another Taylor-Fletcher header only for Adam Collin to pull off a vital close-range save.
It was good to see the big man atone for his midweek mistakes at Watford in such a crucial way, and that was virtually the end of the visitors’ meaningful threat as Rotherham responded to Evans’ message after the break.
A searching Ben Pringle corner - one of many top-class deliveries from the left midfield man throughout the game - was headed out by centre-half Jos Hooiveld who then helped the ball into his own net as Ward returned it with interest from 16 yards out.
As the home side pressed and pressed, Millwall midfielder Michael Tonge survived a penalty shout for handball after another Pringle flag-kick, right-back Jack Hunt smacked the post with a thumping low drive as he ran in from the right and Ward’s follow-up effort was acrobatically tipped away by Lions goalkeeper David Forde.
Then, with time running out in the 82nd minute, centre-half Kirk Broadfoot - whose superb block on Woolford’s header had helped avert Millwall’s one moment of real second-half danger - was sent tumbling in the area by Hooiveld after yet another Pringle corner. No penalty, said referee Gary Sutton.
Evans? He’s only human, after all. He lost his head.
Three minutes later it didn’t matter as Arnason, another to make amends for a midweek slip, rose majestically at the back post to power home his header. The supply? Yes, another Pringle corner.
“The two players who probably helped us more than any others today were severely at fault on Tuesday. Adam’s performance on Tuesday was not like him at all with two spillages. Kari Arnason can’t help slipping over,” said Evans.
“I said to both players on Friday ‘Just go and make up for it. Go and prove a point’. We don’t hammer people here for mistakes as long as they learn from them. Our goalkeeper stood up today and Kari has a fantastic header. He’s put it in with real power. They had a boy on the post but it goes straight past him.
“I’m thinking once again that Rotherham don’t get penalties. I don’t know what else Broadfoot has to do there to get a penalty, all bar the guy assaulting him. It’s a clear penalty. But the referee’s integrity isn’t questioned by me. It never is because I don’t think they turn up to get these things wrong. It takes nothing away from a good three points.”
Throughout all of this, one man stood out among all others: Millers midfielder Richie Smallwood. His tireless workrate set the standards for others to willingly follow, he continually broke up Millwall’s play with sharp tackling and constant harassment and his positioning and passing were spot-on. Immense.
This was a huge and deserved victory for Rotherham, the second half in particular sporting theatre of the most tense and nerve-jangling kind.
Too many headlines, inevitably, will be about Millwall, malice and morons, but under the radar was a supporters story of a more heartwarming kind.
The home stands were very close to a sell-out, partially as a result of Rotherham’s ‘Bring a Friend for a Fiver’ campaign, designed to put bums on seats and contribute to the atmopshere which helped see the Millers home.
An example of football at its best, when a club works in harmony with the communuty it serves and the people respond.
Forget the Lions and lunacy. Flag up Friends and Fivers. They, like Rotherham’s win, are priceless.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Collin 7; Hunt 7, Broadfoot 7, Arnason 8, Fryers 7; Newton 5 (Hammill 69, 7), Green 8, Smallwood 9, Pringle 9; Derbyshire 7 (Sammon 89), Ward 8(Frecklington 90+2). Subs not used: Loach, Milsom, Richardson, Clarke-Harris.
Millwall (4-2-3-1: Forde 7; Abdou 6, Dunne 7, Hooiveld 6, Harding 6; Tonge 5, Williams 7; Fabbrini (Upson 86) 6, Taylor-Fletcher (Fuller 58, 5) 7, Woolford 7; Gregory 6 (O’Brien 65, 5). Subs not used: King, Beevers, Martinez, Nelson.
Hero: Let’s give it to Kari Arnason. Showed the character to come back from his Tuesday slip at Watford to score the oh-so-precious winner. Played centre-half but popped up on both wings to help the Millers’ attacking cause in the second half.
Key moment: Adam Collin’s 37th-minute save from Lee Gregory. It could have all gone horribly wrong if Millwall had taken a 2-0 lead. Great reflexes for the stop, and another man redeeming himself after Vicarage Road.
Viewpoint: Steve Evans was at pains to point out this was just three points, nothing more, and as manager he’s right to do that, But the lift victory gives the Millers and the damage it must do to Millwall’s morale is potentially season-deciding.
Ref watch: Gary Sutton (Lincolnshire). Decent on the whole, but for my money got the Kirk Broadfoot penalty verdict wrong. Lucky for him Rotherham scored soon after or Evans might still be in the New York ref’s room now.
Manager’s view - Steve Evans: “Obviously it helps when you get the early goal in the second half, and it would have bee a travesty if we hadn’t gone on to beat them because we laid siege to their goal. It hits the post and comes back out, you’ve got one off the line, you’ve got, dare I say it, a couple of penalties again for Rotherham that are not given. But we got the goal from a routine the boys have worked on for about two and a half hours on Friday and got very cold standing about on the training ground. But it worked for us and it worked at a vital time.”
Manager’s view - Ian Holloway: “A point here would have kept them closer to us. It looks very difficult but it’s not - there are 12 games left. Results are what it is all about, I’m not getting them, then the fans turn on me. I’m glad they’re doing that and not turning on the team. I believe I can turn this around but if other people don’t then it’s not in my control. If the supporters had the button they would probably have pushed it.”
Attendance: 10,329 (1,309).