Rotherham United: Focus on survival, not the KC collapse ... Hull 5 Millers 1
Remember the 16 games. Not the 17 minutes.
The enduring memory of Rotherham United’s 2015/16 campaign will be the transformation of the club’s survival prospects after the SOS arrival of manager Neil Warnock in February.
Hull City’s four-goal blitz which destroyed the Millers at the KC Stadium will be hard to forget. But, really, it was just a terrible low after three months of so many dazzling highs that the Millers’ unlikely Championship safety had long been assured before this final-day encounter.
It still hurt, mind.
Warnock has variously described Rotherham’s march from woe to well-being as a miracle, as unbelievable, as amazing, as a band of brothers winning their battle against almost insurmountable odds
Here, he used one word to sum up what he witnessed in that devastating first-half onslaught between minutes 25 and 42.
“We have done well because we have been organised, disciplined and worked hard,” he said. “We just lost the plot.
“You’ve got midfielders not tracking their men, you’ve got defenders sleeping, you’ve got full-backs not doing their jobs. It was an abysmal spell. We were lucky to get away with four.”
The grim irony is that Rotherham suffered their heaviest defeat of the season after an escape act built on defensive solidity.
The 2,442 travelling supporters had turned up hoping for a party and, 16 minutes in, the celebrations were in full swing as Lee Frecklington took advantage of good work down the right from Grant Ward to hook a quality 18-yard volley into the top right-hand corner.
But the home side, who now head into a play-off semi-final against Derby County, could already have been two goals in front by then, and nine minutes later the gatecrashing began in earnest.
Warnock’s men had no answer to the menace of Ahmed Elmohady and Robert Snodgrass on the right and left flanks respectively while the movement of centre-forward Abel Hernandez led them a merry dance.
Snodgrass equalised with a top-drawer volley, Hernandez’s overhead kick seconds later was world-class, Jake Livermore took advantage of Lee Camp’s hesitation in coming out to make it three in the 40th minute and Mo Diame whipped round Kirk Broadfoot two minutes after that to shoot across Camp and into the far corner.
Hernandez was Abel. The Millers unable.
Warnock got stuck into his players at half-time but knew that part of the problem was the quality of the opposition.
“I am little bit envious looking at their squad,” he said. “I tipped them to win the league, Steve (boss Steve Bruce) will probably be disappointed they didn’t.
“I don’t know how many times he has been able to field that team but that was a good team against us. It’s about as good as he is going to get. You wouldn’t want to face them in that mood.”
Rotherham were too open. But they were also opened up. Bruce admitted he couldn’t remember the last time his side had played so well.
“We lacked energy,” Warnock added. “You can forgive the players a little bit because of the amount they have done in the last few games. You need an edge.
“I felt sorry for the forwards because I thought we started well and looked like we could score goals. But when you are as bad as that in certain areas you are going to get battered by good sides like Hull.”
By the time Camp failed to control Frazer Richardson’s poor 59th-minute back-pass and Livermore scored from the resultant corner, the cheers of the Rotherham fans only an hour earlier as their team had led and passed the ball around seemed a very long time ago.
It appeared the Millers were being attacked from all angles. In Kevin Blackwell’s case, they were.
As the coach and assistant boss focused on events on the field just after half-time, a paper aeroplane, liveried in Hull’s gold and black, blew down from the West Stand and, with the kind of deadly accuracy being shown by Snodgrass and co, pinged him on the head.
After the final whistle, the players, knowing that the season’s bigger picture was to be found away from proceedings at the KC, went to the sold-out away following and handed their shirts to the crowd in a final show of unity with fans who have been with them every step of the way throughout the survival odyssey.
Thankfully, for all concerned, reserve goalkeeper Paddy Kenny kept his on.
Some of them will have been saying goodbye.
Grant Ward’s loan spell is up and the Spurs youngster headed home to South London after the match. He signed off in typical style, with a performance in right midfield full of pace and hard running.
The 21-year-old still needs to learn to give an easy pass and to improve his final ball, but his vigour and attacking thrust have been a big part of Rotherham’s armoury this season.
In his final appearance, in a game already lost and with nothing riding on it, he chased back when a Millers attack broke down in the second half and, a few seconds and 70 yards later, produced a vital clearing header. Talent and attitude. All the best, Grant.
Richardson, Kirk Broadfoot, Richard Wood, Stephen Kelly, Paul Green and Leon Best all gave up their tops and are out of contract in the summer.
And then, of course, there is Warnock. The whole of Rotherham awaits his decision on his future.
As some of the old guard were bidding farewell, there was a glimpse of the possible future as young winger Darnelle Bailey-King was introduced late on for his debut. The teenager has looked a cut above in the reserves, and if you think Grant Ward is quick ...
One pinpoint ball B-K fizzed out of defence into Leon Best on the halfway line was as good as any pass in the entire game.
First-half opportunites were passed up by the two Wards, Grant and Danny, and Richie Smallwood, and others after the break for the younger Ward and Leon Best went begging.
There were too many Hull chances to chronicle. The fact that Camp was culpable for one goal, played a part in another and still merits 7/10 says everything.
“We had to play for pride in the second half,” Warnock said. “I didn’t want to get battered by eight or nine goals, which could easily have happened if we didn’t have a bit more fight.”
Rotherham duly finished the season in 21st place with 49 points - the same position and the same total (before last year’s three-point deduction) as 12 months ago.
It took that once-in-a-lifetime 11-match unbeaten run under Warnock, who rescued the club when all signs were pointing towards relegation, to achieve that.
The Millers could have lost 5-1 on Saturday and been relegated. Instead, they just lost 5-1.
The scenes at the end, with players, manager and staff going as one across the pitch to acknowledge supporters, have become familiar sights during the revival, although the emotion this time was inevitably muted by such a heavy loss.
But suddenly the mood improved. The defiance which has characterised so much of Warnock’s reign was back, and the one message which really mattered rang out from the massed red and white ranks.
“We are staying up, say we are staying up.”
Hull City (4-4-2): McGregor 6; Odubajo 7, Davies 7, Dawson 7, Robertson 7; Elmohamady 9, Huddlestone 8, Livermore 8, Snodgrass 9 (Clucas 77); Diame 8 (Maguire 72), Hernandez 9 (Maloney 80). Subs not used: Jakupovic, Bruce, Akpon, Aluko.
Rotherham United (4-1-4-1): Camp 5; Kelly 5, Broadfoot 5, Wood 5, Richardson 5; Halford 5; G Ward 8, Smallwood 6, Frecklington 7 (Green 90+2), D Ward 5 (Bailey-King 84); Clarke-Harris 5 (Best 69, 6). Subs not used: Kenny, Mattock, Belaid, Facey.
Goals: Snodgrass 25, Hernandez 26, Livermore 40, 59, Diame 42 (Hull); Frecklington 16 (Rotherham).
Referee: Scott Duncan (N]orthumberland).
Attendance: 18,670 (2,442).