Why '˜Once a Miller, always a Miller' meant more than usual against Kenny Jackett: Rotherham United 1 Portsmouth 0
Paul Warne against Kenny Jackett.
The Manager of the Month versus the manager of a month.
Warne is the man leading Rotherham United’s League One play-off push after reluctantly stepping up from fitness coach when Jackett came and left in a hurry in last term.
Thirty-nine days Jackett lasted. Five games, before deciding the hot-seat at AESSEAL New York Stadium in a Championship relegation season was too hot for him.
Warne, Sky Bet’s vote for top boss in December, is still here. This was his and his team’s day.
Despite a relentless - and I mean, relentless - second-half attacking barrage from the Millers, the match headed into time added on goalless.
But in the 92nd minute the unlikely figure of left-back Joe Mattock climbed at the back post to head home right in front of the North Stand which rose in crazy, roof-raising acclaim.
Thousands of fans delivered their own cacophonous verdict. “Kenny, Kenny, what’s the score?” rained down from three sides of the ground on the black-clad figure suddenly looking a very lonely man in his technical area.
It was followed by: “Paul Warne, there’s only one Paul Warne.”
Said the home boss: “We kept knocking on the door and if we’d have come off with a 0-0 I’d still have been proud of the performance. We were the only team trying to win the game.
“For Joe to score a far-stick header that late on, it says how we play here. We go for it. Our full-backs are in their six-yard box.”
It’s customary for visiting managers to take post-match questions in the New York Press room. Jackett chose not to.
Rotherham, unbeaten in eight matches, are up to seventh in the table. This was the first of two successive home matches against teams above them in the table, with Bradford City up next on Tuesday. Saturday was a big test. Were the Millers’ genuine top-six contenders?
Warne has a soft spot for Mattock, but always jokes he’d hate to have him on his quiz team.
Here, though, when it really mattered, the defender helped Rotherham answer a very important question.
The first half was shared. The second belonged entirely to the Millers as Warne’s men went for the jugular.
Within two minutes, Vaulks’ goalbound header was inadvertently cleared off the line by teammate Jerry Yates, the midfielder’s follow-up shot was repelled by Nathan Thompson and Richard Wood, who likes to take up a great position and miss at least once a game, skewed a back-post effort wide.
Two big goalmouth scrambles. Great defending. A Semi Ajayi shot. Foiled. A David Ball half-chance over the bar. A Smith shot. Thwarted. Block after block from an heroic Portsmouth backline.
Pompey broke twice and sent shots off target. Just momentary threats. Rotherham pressure mounted. And mounted.
Then came the moment. Mattock’s moment. The Millers’ moment. Portsmouth old boy Mattock reckons he’s always good for one goal a season. He missed out last year, but made amends as he finished off a deft cross from substitute Michael Smith, also once of Pompey, to spark the New York frenzy.
“Portsmouth, defensively, are probably the best team we have played here,” Warne said. “I don’t know how many corners we had in the second half. They were throwing their bodies on the line. But the lads just kept going.”
It wasn’t so much the win that underlined Rotherham’s play-off credentials, it was the manner in which they achieved it.
Before kick-off, there had been a minute’s applause for past Rotherham players John McGlashan and Rodney Fern, plus former England striker Cyrille Regis, all of whom had recently passed away.
Just as poignantly, the names of Rotherham supporters who had passed away in the last 12 months were displayed on the stadium’s giant screen. ‘Once a Miller, always a Miller’ was part of the moving tribute.
Warne was visibily affected afterwards, talking of standing close to the grandchildren of Fern and questioning his own mortality. One day, he mused, that could be his kids mourning him.
Victory, on an emotional afternoon, meant even more than usual.
Here were two teams playing in the image of their respective bosses. The Millers were bold, swashbuckling, on the front foot, giving everything, displaying fitness levels on a frightening scale. Pompey were organised, committed, hard-working, pragmatic, without frills.
Warne made attacking changes, bringing on striker Smith, who had a major impact on his home debut, and Joe Newell who ran at defenders and twisted them inside and out.
Rotherham, who have tightened up defensively, have scored in 21 successive matches. Five times this season - against Bury, Doncaster Rovers, Plymouth Argyle, Blackburn Rovers and now Portsmouth - they have grabbed last-gasp goals to seal wins or salvage points.
That speaks of character not coincidence.
“Today’s winner says a lot about our spirit,” said Mattock. “I think it has grown since the start of the season. The gaffer goes on about it a lot and it is something he drills into us. It plays a big part in football these days. We are really starting to believe we can be in the play-offs.”
Momentum is building. Bonds are growing stronger. The noise was deafening. Supporters bounced from the top of the kop to the bottom. Players raised their arms. Staff celebrated. None more so than assistant boss Richie Barker who once suffered a torrid time as Portsmouth manager.
“It’s nice to be on a run,” Warne said. “It’s nice to get the plaudits. It’s nice no-one left before the end. It just felt like a really together club.”
Once a Miller, always a Miller. Warne, like those names on the New York screen, is the epitome of that.
It’s a message lost on the man he has now beaten twice this season.