They’ve gone 14 games unbeaten and spread fear through League One. They’ve marched into the top six, toppling play-off rivals along the way. They’ve won their last seven matches to become real contenders for promotion.
Yet the most important 15 minutes of Rotherham United’s League One season came before their incredible recent run of results even began.
Half-time at bleak, unglamorous, sub-zero Blackpool on December 9. After a bright start to the season, the Millers hadn’t tasted victory in seven league outings. Experimenting with three at the back, the team had frozen in the first half at Bloomfield Road in the same way as the temperature on the North-west Coast.
Paul Warne’s men were 1-0 down at the break, they were booed off by 1,000 shivering away fans and it was about to turn ugly.
Warne was brave. He took action.
Off came the anonymous Jonson Clarke-Harris up front and off came one of the trio of centre-halves, Michael Ihiekwe, sacrificed as Rotherham switched to 4-4-2.
Substitute Jerry Yates and strike partner David Ball ran the Seasiders’ defence to distraction. Ball scored, right in front of the Millers supporters, then, late on, he scored again. Abuse became acclaim and there were wild scenes of celebration at the end of a gutsy 2-1 comeback.
Rotherham haven’t lost since.
Loan hitman Kieffer Moore took his 6ft 5in frame and 13-goal record back to Ipswich and then on to Barnsley at the beginning of January. Skipper and midfielder Lee Frecklington was sold to Lincoln City. Holding midfielder Darren Potter dropped out injured.
But, as other players stepped up, as partnerships formed throughout the team, as manager Warne worked a bit of Michael Smith magic in the transfer window, that once-key threesome haven’t been missed.
Moore had been the focal point of a 4-1-4-1 line-up and there had been some heavy victories in August and September. But his departure allowed Warne’s Plan B to flourish. It also allowed the talented Ball to start regularly.
“That formation was gnawing away at me a bit,”Warne revealed. “I never felt we really had it sussed, even when we were hitting fives. I’ve always been a 4-4-2 man at heart.”
The fourth-placed Millers, scorers in their last 27 matches, haven’t had a problem in opposition territory this season but they had been having issues in their own half.
Centre-halves Semi Ajayi and Richard Wood have come together to such effect that only the three clubs above the Millers have better defensive records, while a regular run of games has seen young goalkeeper Marek Rodak show why Warne signed him on a year-long loan from Fulham
Will Vaulks and Richie Towell have dovetailed in the centre of the park. Competitive Vaulks has that long throw, plus graft and running. Combative Towell has that short fuse, plus craft and cunning. Together, the box-to-box duo have won their midfield battles.
On the right, Anthony Forde is now the confident, penetrating winger we all hoped he could be and attacking full-back Josh Emmanuel doesn’t gives Warne as many heart attacks in defence as he used to. On the other flank, Joe Newell’s deft feet have now became a regular rather then intermittent threat, helped by his link-up with left-back Joe Mattock.
Targetman Smith arrived, fairly unheralded, as a 6ft 4in Bury misfit early in the New Year. Four goals in six starts after replacing Yates is Kieffer form and shows how Warne and his staff can identify and make the most of a new recruit. Warne didn’t think Moore and Ball could play alongside each other. Smith and Ball certainly can.
And, crucially, because the manager has moulded a team in his own image of hard work and relentless running, because of the character of his players, the Millers are always more than the sum of their parts.
“Kieffer and Frecks left and they were two big players for us,” said Forde. “But we had new signings coming in and Smudge (Smith) has been brilliant up top since he has come in.
“He’s been excellent in every game he has played in. Kieffer was on fire when he was here and we didn’t want to lose him, but it happened. We have dealt with it really well and are flying.”
Rotherham haven’t tasted defeat since Moore was sent off in in a 2-1 reverse at Bristol Rovers on December and disappeared from the starting line-up. The only thing to beat them in three months has been the weather, last Saturday’s clash at Gillingham falling victim to the snow.
“I think we are good at getting crosses into the box, winning corners and just being an attacking outlet,” said Warne simply.
He is being too humble. 11 victories in the 14-game sequence and so many crucial late goals speak of attitude, conditioning and desire. There isn’t a fitter side in the division, while the Millers’ bench of game-changers has been cleverly used by the boss and is the envy of the third tier. At times, Rotherham have overwhelmed teams.
Down to 10 men, they grabbed a last-minute equaliser against Plymouth Argyle, they made high-flying Blackburn Rovers crack in the dying seconds to earn a draw, Portsmouth and Kenny Jackett fell to a last-gasp strike. Most memorably of all, they struck twice in time added on nine days ago to come from behind and win the South Yorkshire derby against Doncaster Rovers.
They triumphed at Scunthorpe United, who were above them in the table at the time. They had too much at New Meadow for Shrewsbury Town who were top of the league.
He never went public with it, but Shrewsbury boss Paul Hurst couldn’t believe the trouble Smith’s physicality, touch and non-stop mobility had given his defence.
Twelve games remain and the top two is almost certainly beyond Rotherham, but momentum is with them and no-one thinks they won’t make the play-offs. In their present mood, they’re the team everyone will want to avoid.
The transformation, after last season’s relegation horror, that Warne and his backroom bunch have wrought in their first full campaign in charge is remarkable.
No longer does anyone doubt the rookie boss who is even prouder of the revived spirit in the camp and the new culture of the club than he is the results.
“They were dark days last season,” said coach and member of the Warne inner circle Matt Hamshaw. “We had some players here who shouldn’t have been here, some players who were on too much money, some whose attitudes stunk.
“This season has been unbelievable. Everyone is buying into it. The staff have more support from the players than they ever did last season. We’ve brought in the right players and got rid of the ones who were wrong for us.
“We want good people, people who represent what we are about and what we think this club should be about.”
Under Warne, a clear style has emerged. Rotherham press and harry like fury to win possession, look to play forward, attack from all angles and put ball after ball into the box. They have the long throw, the corners, and the free-kicks, but there is class and quality beyond a mere set-piece side.
Fourteen without loss. Seven wins on the spin. A telling aspect of progress, of achievement, of hope for the run-in, is that the talk now is of Ajayi and Wood, Vaulks and Towell, Smith and Ball, Forde and Newell.
Not Moore and Frecklington.