Match Report: Wigan Athletic 1 Rotherham United 2

Tom Lawrence celebrates
Tom Lawrence celebrates

They lined up five at the back and the rest of it was quite fluid, with red and white popping up in various places.

This had nothing to do with Rotherham United boss Steve Evans’ formation at Wigan Athletic. These were the Millers supporters wearing Santa outfits in the last, massive match before Christmas.

They added considerably to the Yuletide cheer. But nowhere near as much as a deserved win for Evans and his men, their first for 10 matches, which lifted them away from the drop zone into 19th place and left their opponents deep in the relegation mire.

There’s no such thing as a six-pointer in December, except everybody was talking about this as a six-pointer.

Since the no-show against Birmingham City a month ago, this victory had been coming. Evans - who actually is as brave a boss as he says he is - brought in quick, hungry young loan players who are all good on the ball, changed the style of play and the effect was immediate.

Frustration has been replaced with optimism as the pass-and-move approach has gathered momentum, and, after draws with Blackpool, Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest which could have all been wins, the Millers earned three precious points for the first time since beating Leeds at home in October,

The loan quartet, Tom Lawrence, Emmanuel Ledesma, Reece James and Scott Wootton, have claimed most of the headlines, but the veterans of the back-to-back promotions have bought right into Evans’ new philosophy too, so it was fitting that a combination of new and old should combine to see the Millers prevail at the DW Stadium

Lawrence, who led the Wigan defence a merry dance all afternoon, scored his first goal for the club to put the Millers into a first-half lead and the Wembley warhorse, Alex Revell, headed home the winner from Emmanuel Ledesma’s free-kick in the second half just a minute after Ben Watson had equalised for Wigan when he headed in from a corner.

“It was another super performance,” said Evans. “I thought in the first half we were a country distance in front of Wigan, and we’re disappointed (at half-time) to be only 1-0 up. They get a goal from a set-play, which is disappointing, but then we go and win it from a set-play, a good header from Alex. They’ll be as disappointed at conceding that as I am about conceding our equaliser.

“We’ve got youngsters who are given this freedom to play, and there’s this desire and hunger they have … To concede an equaliser, it doesn’t matter to them. I’m the bravest manager in the world and I say ‘I’m going to pick you, I’m going to play you, you’re going to give the ball away, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to run it off the pitch, but we’re going to allow you to express yourself and play’.

“They have been an absolute credit to us along, it has to be said, with some lads who were raised in League Two who again were outstanding for us. I have to praise my captain, Craig Morgan, and Kari Arnason who put their heads on a lot of things in that last six minutes of additional time that Mr Stroud (referee Keith) found. I think he must have been delaying his journey home and his wife was stuck in traffic!”

Beforehand, there had been a military brass band, The Last Post, a minute’s silence and ear-splitting cannonfire to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

The whiff of cordite was still in the air when the Millers surveyed a horrible, boggy playing surface, rolled up their sleeves and went into battle with the courage to stick to their passing game.

“I think the pitch is the worst in the league so far,” Evans said. “There’s been a lot of rain over here and I think the players were saying it was sodden and slippy and moving.

“It didn’t suit our style but we still passed it and we still moved it. Our analyst has just said to me that we had over 600 passes and a success rate of something like 84 per cent. That’s up there with the best in the Championship. You see Chelsea doing 90/91 and we’re 84 in the Championship … and we’re the team everyone thinks they should beat. We’re proud of them.”

Callum McManaman had slalomed his way past three defenders early on to be denied by Adam Collin and Watson blasted over when he should have done better, but the Millers were a growing threat in the first half.

Revell and the impressive Ledesma had shots, Ledesma showed perfect control on the run to take Richie Smallwood’s pass and fire over, a so-sweet first-time strike from Reece James was blocked, Lawrence was denied by a superb James Perch tackle and Revell’s stinging effort drew a brilliant save from former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Scott Carson.

Then ... it’s Christmas and a time for gifts.

Centre-half Leon Barnett’s uncontrolled sideways header played left-back Andrew Taylor into trouble and Lawrence, still young enough to possibly believe in Father Christmas, took full advantage of a fluffed back-pass to coolly steer the ball past Carson for his first Millers goal.

Some of the stuff Lawrence did was - to use an Evans’ word - stunning. His close control and vision have echoes of Dennis Bergkamp about them. While ever the Millers have him in their side things will happen up front.

“I said last week he was a lighthouse in a dark ocean,” Evans said. “He wasn’t just a lighthouse in a dark ocean today, he was a lighthouse in a dark ocean and I’ve a bottle of red wine waiting for you in the lighthouse and you’re going to reach it. That’s what he was like.”

Smallwood is unlikely to ever draw comparisons with an old Dutch master, but what a player he is. He does all the unglamorous stuff - a foot in here, stopping an attack there - is always available to take a pass and distributes with calm, unfussy ease.

Other players may light up a game more, but he and fellow midfielder Paul Green are the heartbeat of this new-look Rotherham side.

The fans played their part too. There were 1,543 supporters and, boy, did they make themselves heard and celebrate hard. Derby on opening day with 2,700 there and Hillsborough with close to 5,000 were memorable, but this was the best so far.

“I’ve never heard the Millers fans not being positive,” Evans said. “They have had a magical two years. They want a magical third because when you go to Cardiff and when you play the Forests, the Derbys, the Leeds and the Middlesbroughs etcetera you want to play them all again next year

“They all said a couple of weeks ago ‘what’s Evo doing? His madness has crept in again, he’s changing the style of play’. They must love coming to watch us. They’ll go across the M62 in the freezing cold and they’ll be absolutely buzzing.

“And the people at home who just can’t afford at this time of year to travel away with us will be with us on Boxing Day. The players are very fortunate to have the Millers support behind them.”

Rotherham remained solid as Wigan chased an equaliser and, as the game opened up, the visitors could have made the game safe as several times they broke and outnumbered the home defence. Revell was a whisker away from his second and Green’s and sub Jordan Bowery’s lack of conviction saw chances go begging.

Oriol Riera rattled the bar with a header in the 89th minute but the Millers were unfazed and still chasing a third goal when Mr Stroud finally decided it was time to go and meet his missus.

Afterwards, Evans dedicated the win to his chairman and vice-chairman, father and son Tony and Richard Stewart.

“I’m going to say this for my chairman tonight. He’s at every away game that he can get to – I think he’s missed only one this season – and he’s come in the freezing cold today,” he said. “That’s for the chairman and the vice-chairman for their support of me and telling me, wherever we go this season, that I’m the man they want to lead the Millers. That means a lot.”

And so does this victory, final vindication, if any was needed, that Evans was right to take his squad in a new direction. All that had been needed was end product, and here it was.

The mood, as I and the rest of the media pack interviewed him at pitchside, was the warmest thing of a bitterly-cold afternoon, one of satisfaction, contentment - good, wholesome festive feelings.

As we moved on to quiz Revell, a grinning Evans walked past and shouted at the big striker he loves: “You need to work on your fitness.”

We all laughed - Revell, who’d just put in a killer shift, scored the winner and battled through a painful knock before coming off with just six minutes left, as loud as anybody.

He struggled for a comeback line and admitted Evans had just got the better of him, which brought more laughter.

That’s what winning does for you.

Ho ho ho.

Manager’s view: Steve Evans: “However much we disguised it, it was a big football match. We’ve just sat in the dressing room and I’ve said if there’s a criticism it goes back to Cardiff and it goes to Forest and Blackpool, because if you add six points to today’s total we’d be sitting 11th or 12th in the table and looking very much at the play-off pack. But we don’t get carried away We’ve won only one game since the middle of October or whatever nonsense it is.”

Manager’s view: Malky Mackay: “We’re creating chances, we’re just not being clinical enough in front of goal, and at the other end we’re giving away not even soft goals. The squad is too big, and we’ve got to make sure in January we do business properly.”

Hero: Richie Smallwood for reasons mentioned in the match report. But Tom Lawrence and Emmanuel Ledesma caused Wigan all kinds of problems with their ability and confidence to go at opponents and open up gaps.

Key moment: Alex Revell’s looping header for the second goal. Came just a minute after Wigan’s equaliser. Crushed the home side’s hopes of building up a head of steam, and after the Millers looked the more likely side to score.

Viewpoint: This was a huge win. Everyone could see Evans’ bold new dawn was working but it needed that first win in 10 games just for tangible confirmation. Three points are very tangible thank you. Another big one on Boxing Day now. There’s no let-up!

Ref watch: Keith Stroud (Dorset). One of the better referees. Firm throughout. Didn’t get everything right but called all the major incidents correctly, although James McClean could have seen red rather than yellow for a vicious lunge on Emmanuel Ledesma.

Wigan Athletic: Carson 7, Perch 7, Boyd 6, Barnett 6, Taylor 5, Watson 6, Maloney 5 (Fortune 53, 7), Cowie 5 (Riera 63, 6), McCann 6 (Forshaw 80), McManaman 7, McLean 6. Subs not used: Al Habsi, Tavernier, Espinoza, Figueroa.

Rotherham United: Collin 7, Wootton 7, Arnason 8, Morgan 8, James 7, Green 7, Smallwood 9, Ledesma (Taylor 80) 9, Lawrence 8 (Bowery 71), Pringle 8, Revell 8 (Frecklington 84). Subs not used: Thompson, Newton, Derbyshire, Clark-Harris.

Attendance: 12,641 (1,543).