Rotherham United: A mix of old, new and Matt Derbyshire gives Millers reason for hope

Matt Derbyshire scores against Bolton
Matt Derbyshire scores against Bolton

It says much about Steve Evans’ new approach that today is likely to be an unremarkable, routine 24 hours in Rotherham United’s Championship campaign, much like the Monday of a fortnight ago.

That Monday two weeks previous, remember, was transfer deadline day, a time in the past when the Millers manager has been as busy as Santa on Christmas Eve.

The fact that he made no new signings on February 2 is testament to his policy of picking and waiting for the right men. He wanted new arrivals, he tried for new arrivals. But when it became apparent the club’s carefully-chosen targets wouldn’t be available, he left it there.

He’d already done good January business, bringing in Conor Sammon, Danny Ward, Adam Hammill and Jack Hunt on long-term loans or permanent deals and signing a Premier League left-back in Zeki Fryers for a month.

The reward has been two wins and a draw in the Millers’ last four matches, a run which has seen them take huge strides in their bid to ensure second-tier football at AESSEAL New York Stadium next season.

Evans also got his loan recruitment right in November, adding Tom Lawrence, Emmanuel Ledesma, Scott Wottton and Reece James to his squad. All have since departed but the contributions of all four are written indelibly in Rotherham’s record of only three defeats in their last 12 league outings.

The squad size has been slashed as players have left on permanent or temporary deals, leaving room to add what he describes as “one or two bits of quality” in the newly-opened loan window. Gone is the summer dealing when every few days seemed to bring a new signing, some of whom would prove to be not up to the task.

It all leaves the 20th-placed Millers in a decent position as they embark on the last 16 matches of the season, beginning tomorrow night at home to promotion favourites Derby County when they play their game in hand on most of their rivals.

They are three points clear of the drop zone - and would have been further away had Millwall not surprised everybody with two successive away wins - and a clutch of clubs in a very tight division lie within realistic catching distance.

Defeat at Blackburn last Tuesday was a stark reminder that the battle to stay up is far from over. But the quality of performance prior to that in wins over Bolton Wanderers and Ipswich Town and a draw at Charlton Athletic was ample evidence that Evans’ men can be a force at this level.

Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy - rated by Evans as the best manager in the Championship and memorably seen off 2-0 at New York nine days ago - agrees that they can be. Will the Millers stay up, he was asked. “Absolutely, 100 per cent,” came the replay. “I’m certain of that. They’ll be near midtable.”

Sammon has made an instant impact, with two goals, his mobility, strength, Championship know-how and appetite for hard work winning over the Millers faithful

Ward, Hammill and Hunt have all offered Championship-quality, game-changing options from the bench so far, and all three could be in for more game time as Evans responds to the 2-1 loss at Ewood Park where his side’s second-half efforts deserved a draw.

It’s a myth to say, as one of two contributors to internet fans forums do, that the heroes of the double promotion have gone. Yes, some have departed, but from those heady days of 2013 and/or 1014 Adam Collin, Craig Morgan, Kari Arnason and Richie Smallwood remain fixtures in the side, while Ben Pringle and Lee Frecklington have started regularly and are still with the club.

Evans gave most of his League One boys a chance at the next level and, running on adrenalin as they embraced their new challenge, initially nobody was really found wanting.

But momentum and effort can carry you only so far. Quality will always count in an environment as unforgiving as the Championship, and a lack of it will always, sooner or later, be found out.

Evans says he knew after 10 games or so that he would have to improve his side.

All of the remaining old guard have stood up pretty well, with Smallwood and Aranason aurguably the stand-out performers of that bunch, although Arni ironically, has attracted more criticism from Evans than probably any other player.

The Rotherham boss has had a right old go at times after matches when the Icelandic international has dropped momentarily from his high standards. But, like an angry dad shouting at his son in a moment of temper, Evans soon forgives and never stops loving him. He knows what class the 32-year-old centre-half brings to the side.

The huge bonus of recent weeks has been the real Matt Derbyshire finally standing up after his 14-match Championship dry spell, Evans’ reward for promising the striker a run of games in the side no matter what.

Three goals in his last four games – and it should have been four as his disallowed effort at Charlton should have stood – speak for themselves, and the all-round play of this intelligent, subtle operator has been dripping with menace and danger.

His understanding with Sammon has been instant, the Millers now have a player good enough to score goals in the top flight playing close to his peak, and the calls for Evans to sign a new hitman have been silenced.

Derbyshire’s transformation has added the cutting edge to a group of players who, under Evans, have never lacked for spirit and belief.

Midfielder Smallwood says: “It will be a good end to the season. We’re all confident in our ability and we deserve to be in this league. I think we’ll show that in the upcoming games.

“Beating teams like Bolton, a massive club, and Ipswich, a big club with a good manager and great players, gives you confidence.

“The games we’ve won we’ve deserved to win. In the second half of the season, I think we’re going to get enough points on the board.”

The Millers are two games into their toughest stretch of the season - a five-match sequence taking in Ipswich, Blackburn, Derby, Wolves and Watford - and already have three points on the board.

Smallwood again typified their attitude, saying: “No-one moans about it. The teams we have to face are all pushing for promotion or the top six.

“We make no bones about it, it’s going to be hard, but we’re going to stick together and we showed against Ipswich we can beat the top teams. We’ll give it our all and I’m sure we’ll pick up some points.”

In truth, the run of matches directly afterwards is more likely to decide the club’s fate. They face, in order, Millwall, Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Wigan Athletic, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Birmingham City and Brighton and Hove Albion, with only Huddersfield and Forest being away.

Derbyshire is likely to be a key figure as Rotherham enter the business end of their campaign. If he stays fit and anywhere near his recent prolific form, then they have a real chance.

Because quality will always count.