Rotherham United: Could a push for the top two really be on? Shrewsbury 0 Millers 1
Minutes after Rotherham United's 13th successive match without defeat, manager Paul Warne ruled it out.
No, he said, he didn’t think his team, who had just toppled the League One leaders on their own patch, could win automatic promotion.
Forget six wins in their last six fixtures, forget scoring in 26 consecutive games, forget being the side the entire division fears, there isn’t enough time for the fourth-placed Millers to gatecrash the top two.
“Do I reckon it’s on? Not really,” he said. “I think if there were 30 games left, there might be a chance. As it is, you have to win about 12 out of 13 and then still hope the ones above you lose. The reason why they’re above you is that they win virtually every week.
“If you’re in the bottom four and win, you’ve got a good chance of catching the ones above you because they don’t normally win. But the top three usually win. It’s difficult.”
But what about beating four play-off contenders in their last half a dozen outings, what about closing the gap to the automatic places to four points - although the trio above them all have games in hand - what about 10 victories in that amazing 13-match sequence?
Make no mistake, on a pitch as terrible as Semi Ajayi’s finishing, Rotherham thoroughly deserved to beat the high-flying Shrews, just as they have thoroughly deserved every one of their 33 points out of an available 39. There has been no fortune in their amazing sequence, no lucky results. The Millers are where they are on merit.
Thirteen games unbeaten. 13 games left. Warne’s men are showing no signs of letting up. As the ball keeps rolling, as togetherness grows, they are getting better and better.
Who knows what a repeat run would bring.
In the battle of League One’s two fittest sides, Rotherham did to Shrewsbury what the Shrews have been doing to teams all season.
Chasing, hassling, harrying, contesting everything, defending solidly, attacking at every opportunity, causing problems at every set-piece, the Millers knocked the table-toppers out of their stride.
Centre-half Richard Wood - after four and a half months of near-misses since his last winner, at Rochdale - struck on the stroke of half-time, guiding the ball home after Michael Ihiekwe had nodded Anthony Forde’s lofted cross into his path.
“Poacher’s finish, just a little tap-in,” grinned Wood before remembering he’s a grizzled, tough-nut centre-half. “Happy days, clean sheet.”
Michael Smith should have put the visitors ahead after five minutes, shooting low and wide when he was released by Ajayi’s deft flick. Nine minutes later, Ajayi completely miscued in front of goal after David Ball had bamboozled three opponents and tested Dean Henderson with a curling shot.
Warne could afford to smile afterwards: “That was one horrendous strike from Semi!”
Forde and Joe Newell had decent sights of goal as Rotherham dominated, Marek Rodak kept Shrewsbury at bay by foiling Shaun Whalley in a one-on-one, then Ajayi rose unmarked six yards out and somehow headed Newell’s corner wide.
More good work from Rodak denied Nathan Thomas in the second half. Smith could have increased the Millers’ lead but stabbed off target after a penetrating run and cross by Newell.
“The conditions weren’t conducive to good football for either team,” Warne said. “It wasn’t a game for the purists. When we got here and saw the pitch, we decided to just keep turning them. Neither team put many passes together, but we were a constant threat. On another day, we might have scored more.”
There was a calm assurance about the Millers, sensible game-management, as they saw out the contest while continuing to ask the Shrews questions. There have been four shut-outs in these last six triumphs.
“Shrewsbury gave us a challenge. We defended resolutely,” Warne said. “Semi has been outstanding. He’s done loads of clearing headers. My two in the middle, Richie (Towell) and Will (Vaulks), they cover so much ground. All the 11 put a right shift in.”
DEAN THE DUD
Rotherham had it in for Shrews goalkeeper Henderson after discovering the Manchester United loanee describes himself as “The Greatest” on social media.
He came for Forde’s 44th-minute high ball into the box, got nowhere near it and watched forlornly as Wood made him pay.
Rather than celebrate with his teammates, Vaulks gave Henderson a verbal volley every bit as venomous as one of his trademark 25-yarders. Smith, normally one of the quieter characters in the Millers camp, also had his say in the second half.
The gaffe helped the Millers win six league encounters on the trot for the first time since the League Two days of 2007.
At the start of the season, a top-10 finish was the aim. As Kieffer Moore departed, Ball started scoring and the Millers began their climb. As Vaulks and Towell dominated in the middle and Ajayi and Wood clicked at the heart of the defence, the play-offs came into view. As striker Smith arrived and Newell and Forde hit top form on the flanks, Rotherham have closed on the Shrews, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers.
Momentum is with them.
Wood, while echoing his manager’s mantra to focus only on the next game, said. “Anything can happen. Any team that faces us now is frightened to play against us.
“We’re playing good high-tempo, pressing football and it’s working. There is massive belief now. We’ve got some very good players with great ability.”
Warne is right. The top two is probably not possible.
Yet for this brilliantly-bonded bunch of battlers is anything impossible?