Rotherham United: Just how magic is the captain Millers fans can't stop singing about?
How come everyone thinks Richard Wood is magic? I mean, it took him four long years to become an overnight sensation at Rotherham United.
I suppose he must be, because the opening line of the song currently topping the Millers charts says he is. And he has the headgear to prove it.
‘Richard Wood is magic, he wears a magic hat.’
The skipper has led the Millers to the League One Play-off Final against Shrewsbury Town at Wembley next Sunday, his inspiringly-abrasive, no-nonsense display in last week’s 2-0 semi-final second-leg triumph over Scunthorpe United at AESSEAL New York Stadium typifying what he has brought to the team this season.
It was a captain’s show of strength, a 10-out-of-10 statement of intent.
Wood loves the fact supporters sing about him. Paul Warne, his boss at Rotherham, calls him Wrecking Ball, Dinosaur and Bank Mananager (Wood sorts out the collection of player fines with a degree of commitment that matches his approach on the pitch) and the 32-year-old centre-half has had plenty of other nicknames in his 16-year pro career.
But, until now, he’s never had his own chant.
Also until now, despite approaching 500 senior appearances, he’s never been to Wembley.
“The last time I was in a play-off final was 13 years ago (his Sheffield Wednesday team beat Hartlepool United 4-2), but that was at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff,” he recalled.
“I have not even been to Wembley to watch a game, so it is going to be good walking out. It is a massive honour to do that. But there’s no point going to Wembley if you don’t win. We need to make sure we prepare right and finish the job off.”
Wood arrived at New York in the summer of 2014 when Steve Evans had taken Rotherham into the Championship. He was overlooked by several managers, including Evans, Neil Redfearn and Alan Stubbs, although Neil Warnock, a boss who knows a fair bit about defending, made him a mainstay of the side that pulled off the 2016 survival miracle.
It wasn’t until this season, Warne’s first full campaign in charge, that the defender, who took the armband when Lee Frecklington departed early in the new year, truly established himself in the side.
“I signed a new contract in January, so the season has gone well for me,” he said. “I had a few tough spells at Rotherham before that. Evans signed me then didn’t play me. Under Stubbs, I wasn’t even getting to travel with the squad to away games. I’d do my own training, but It killed me having Saturdays off.”
His sudden elevation to Millers folk hero culminated in crazy New York scenes last Wednesday. With partner Jade and young sons Jenson and Graye proudly in attendance, he was lauded by pitch-invading fans as players gathered on the West Stand balcony to celebrate their Wembley achievement.
The song that was started by away supporters during victory at Rochdale back in October was now embraced by an entire stadium.
It was fitting testimony to a grizzled competitor who began life in Wednesday’s reserves as a teenager being elbowed in the face by former England international Steve Stone and who has spent his career since giving back better than he takes.
Just how tough is he? ‘And if you throw a brick at him, he’ll header the f****r back.’
The chant has become an anthem of Rotherham’s push for promotion, with various videos of singing supporters, including one from a Millers throng deep into their beer in Magaluf, popping up regularly on social media.
Winger Jon Taylor was caught on camera giving it a go last Wednesday and Wood’s lads also do a mean version back at Wood Towers in Emley. Taylor’s commendable effort contained full swearing. On Dad’s orders, Jenson and Graye have to settle for a more sanitised version.
Rotherham, who dropped so ignominiously from the second tier last year, now stand one win away from an instant return to the level at which Wood has spent much of his time with Wednesday, Coventry City, Charlton Athletic and the Millers.
His joy was unconfined when he scored the opener last Wednesday with a rugged leap and header for his fifth goal of the season and he’s relishing the peace it has brought to his household.
“I love defending and blocking and getting my tackles in, but I can hardly describe my feeling when I got my goal. It was unbelievable,” he said.
“My children had been having nightmares all week about the game and getting worked up about it. They were more nervous than me. To score a goal for them and get through saved some tears! I don’t have to put up with that now and they are happy now for the next week or so.”
His goals in 2017/18 have tended to be important too: winners at Rochdale and Shrewsbury and at home to Fleetwood before Iron hearts were broken by a Lionheart.
Off the pitch, he is softly spoken and endearingly self-effacing. Other than the muscular 6ft 3in frame and bent nose, there are no clues to the warrior he becomes when he steps over the white line.
Personal safety counts for nothing as he defends his own penalty area and he’ll throw himself at anything in the opposition box in pursuit of a goal.
Wood’s battle-hardened bonce, the joke goes, must be shaped like a 50p piece. Net, stand or corner flag, you never know where the ball is going to end up, but that’s all part of the appeal.
‘He heads it to the left, he heads it to the right.’
A natural leader, he’s aware of what he can do and what he can’t, generally managing to stick with the former and avoid the latter. Life has turned full circle from when he was a Millenium Stadium play-off baby and glad of the guidance of Owls old hands like Lee Bullen.
“I was the young lad then, 19, and had the experienced lads around me helping me,” he said. “Now I am going to try to help out our young lads. It is my turn to do that for them. I will savour the moment and keep heads calm. We’ll play the game, not the occasion, and will see how it goes.”
Even with Warne at the helm, the player found himself out of the starting 11 at the start of the seaso. But Wood is magic, remember, and performed his usual trick.
“Every year, I start the season as fourth-choice centre-half,” he said with a wry grin. “Every year, I fight my way into the side.” Then, in a tone underlining his steel and inner belief, he quietly added: “I know what I bring to the team.”
Whatever happens at the national stadium, the transformation of the Millers from last season’s relegation fodder has been remarkable, while 41 appearances highlight the part Wood has played as Warne has brought the club together again.
“Credit goes to the manager for bringing in the players he has did and keeping the players like me and Will (Vaulks),” Wood said. “In Austria in pre-season, it was tough to get up at seven in the morning and do the hill runs.
“We gelled quickly. It was a slog with three or four sessions a day in Austria. It was horrible. But right from that moment, we have stuck together and helped each other through it.
“We have had our ups and downs this season, but I think we have grown as a team confidence-wise. We know what we are about and we never say die. In the second half (against Scunthorpe last week) we knew they would come at us, but we dug in and put our bodies on the line. That is how it should be and what the fans want to see.”
A town will descend on Wembley, daring to dream, living the dream. Wood and his teammates have one last line to write, fans one last line to bellow.
‘And when we win promotion, we’ll sing this song all night.’