VIDEO: Rotherham United reign of Steve Evans

On the biggest rollercoaster day of his three-year-plus rollercoaster reign, Steve Evans somehow snatched Wembley victory from the jaws of defeat.

Rotherham United found themselves 2-0 down to Leyton Orient at the interval in the 2014 League One Play-off Final. A step too far after a long, exhausting season.

Steve Evans with Tony Stewart at Wembley

Steve Evans with Tony Stewart at Wembley

But, stirred by their manager’s interval rhetoric, the Millers fought back to 2-2 before sealing their place in the Championship in a penalty shootout.

Afterwards, red-faced, sweating and struggling to hold in his emotions, he turned to the TV cameras and delivered a memorable message in his cracked Scottish brogue to the watching millions ...

“That’s what I do.”

A complete approach to management encapsulated in one 15-minute half-time break.

The final celebration ... victory at Birmingham

The final celebration ... victory at Birmingham

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He shouted, he harried, he cajoled, he inspired, he sometimes put arms round shoulders, he brought the best out of people.

He divided fans, wasn’t popular with his players but achieved more than anyone dared dream when he left Crawley Town in 2012 with a brief to deliver better than League Two football as the club prepared to move into the stunning new home built by chairman Tony Stewart.

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It was a reign which began in defeat, 2-1 in League Two at Shewsbury in April 2012, and ended in victory, a 2-0 Championship triumph at Birmingham City last Saturday.

In between, there were enough wins to secure two successive Millers promotions and survival in their first season in the second tier, nearly 90 signings, a million highs, a hundred lows and three instances of joyful tie-waving from the AESSEAL New York Stadium balcony at the end of each of his full seasons.

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Plus, famously, that sombrero.

The parting of the ways has come as a huge shock.

Some people thought he might have gone at the end of last season, with home-town club Peterborough a likely destination, and he was under pressure when a poor start to this campaign left the Millers in bottom spot. But he had turned his side around to such an extent in the last month that he leaves them above the bottom three after back to back victories.

He and Stewart, a true hero to every Millers fan for the way he saved and re-invented the club, worked closely together. But, despite the millions Stewart has pumped into the club, Rotherham simply can’t compete with the big budgets of the division’s major sides.

Evans accepted he’d never be shopping at Harrods yet may feel he’d gone as far as he could in defying the odds, and a club statement talked of both parties favouring different directions.

His critics say he wasn’t tactically astute enough for the Championship, yet the Millers turned over some big clubs last season - Leeds, Ipswich, Bolton and others - with exhilarating displays, and this year’s side have been showing real signs of progress.

He was a character. Good and bad. Larger than life. Complex sometimes, compellingly straightforward at others. Some felt his constant haranguing of officials, on touchlines during games and in press rooms afterwards up and down the country, was unedifying, that all that appealing wasn’t that appealing and damaged the image of the club.

Sombrero Steve

Sombrero Steve

Others loved his passion. He lived and breathed the job, living away from his family in a house he shared with No 2 Paul Raynor, pacing the floor in the early hours after a defeat and analysing game after game on DVD.

Always, always, he split opinion. Like Marmite, you either liked him or you really didn’t.

One of the most telling descriptions I ever heard of him came from someone at the club who said: “Steve looks for demons when sometimes they aren’t there.”

Rather than risk losing a fight, he’d pick one when there wasn’t one to be had - maybe a product of a loving but harsh upbringing on a tough Glasgow council estate where everyone had to scrap for everything.

Thus, all refs were out to get him, the Football League didn’t want to see the Millers punching above their weight and his club would never, ever be awarded a penalty again. In quieter moments, he didn’t really believe it himself. But he would use his sense of injustice to fuel his ambition and competitive spirit.

Win and be unpopular? Lose and be liked? I actually think there was was touch of insecurity and a desire to be accepted in him that few got to see, but I don’t have to give you the answer to that particular conundrum.

Winning was everything. “I’m good for you guys,” he used to tell the press gang. “I live life on the edge.”

Evans brought 88 new players to the club, which averages out at almost a signing every two matches, and came in for criticism for a “scattergun approach” - a phrase he hated.

Plainly, it was too many. but his record in the transfer market was better than he was given credit for. Yes, there were Nicky Hunt, Laurie Wilson, Febian Brandy, Luke Rooney, Mat Sadler and Kelle Roos. But he brought Kari Arnason, Craig Morgan and Lee Frecklington to the club in the League Two days, turned unknown Kieran Agard into a feared forward, introduced Nouha Dicko to the world, found Richie Smallwood and James Tavernier and saved the 2014/15 Championship season with some inspired loan additions - Tom Lawrence, Jack Hunt and Emi Martinez.

He had a big job to do in his first season and he did it, handling the pressure and expectation generated by the club’s move to New York, and memorably clinching promotion with a five-match winning streak at the end of the season.

In League One, some of Rotherham’s play was a joy to behold. Frecklington ruled the division in centre midfield, Agard never stopped scoring, Ben Pringle never stopped crossing, Dicko arrived for a stunning six-game cameo and Smallwood and Tavernier took the side to another level. There was a 15-match unbeaten run, while the season included some of that amazing Tuesday-night away sequence of 15 games without defeat. And then there was Gillingham.

Yes, Gillingham. The Kent side were taken apart in a New York first half which produced the best football I have ever seen from a Millers team. It was 3-0 at the break, could easily have been 8-0, and that grizzled lower-league defender, Adam Barrett, walked off shaking his head with a look of utter bemusement in his eyes.

The quality of the Championship was eye-opening, and Evans regards surviving in it last season as the biggest achievement of his managerial career.

His relationship with Stewart was warm and full of mutual respect, although the chairman was always aware how the signings were mounting up and wasn’t blind to some of his manager’s ways.

When he did make mistakes, Evans, with Stewart’s backing, usually quickly put them right.

He did things his way. Either you served your purpose or you were out. There was no sentiment in his decision-making. Fans’ favourite Daniel Nardiello was jettisoned in League One when he stopped working hard enough. Double-promotion stalwart Joe Skarz, who no-one would ever accuse of being a slacker, was gone when Evans decided there were other Championship alternatives at left-back out there.

His time with Rotherham included three unforgettable end-of-season finales - the League Two promotion clincher against Aldershot, the League One play-off semi-final decider when the Millers destroyed Preston to book that fateful Wembley day and the win last April against Reading when they sealed their second-tier safety.

The roof metaphorically came off sold-out New York all theee times and the manager’s tie literally did as he took to the West Stand balcony to whirl it round his head in front of thousands of fans gathered on the pitch.

Away from the pressures of matchday, he had the capacity to be really good company. He could stand back and acknowledge how he brought a lot of the bad publicity on himself and had an endearingly self-deprecating touch to his humour. He enjoyed an audience, and his accounts of how he acted when his daughters brought home boyfriends for the first time were hilarious.

A common theme among some players and staff was that his shouting was too much, too loud and went on for too long and that he never showed them any gratitude, no matter what they had helped him to achieve. I’ve heard that off the record enough times to know it must be right.

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But I’ve seen him go out of his way to treat fans well, and he was nearly always a welcoming and entertaining figure at pre-match press conferences.

Clearly, the man who provoked two different viewpoints had two different sides.

You had to watch how you phrased your line of probing after a game, particularly one which had ended in defeat, but he never, ever dodged a question. He might snap and growl the odd time at one he didn’t like, but he’d always answer it, although he was a master at bending the truth and figures to suit his message.

When you rang him, he rarely picked up his phone. But I can’t remember a single instance when he didn’t call back, and there aren’t that many managers you can say that about.

On a personal level, I’m pleased to say we enjoyed a good relationship. I enjoy Marmite from time to time and I certainly don’t mind a bit of Big Steve now and again.

When Rotherham had achieved safety last season, despite a Football League three-point deduction, he donned a Mexican hat,shorts and flip-flops for the final match, at Leeds in response to a Twitter campaign.

Some said it was too light-hearted by far for a man in a responsible position. Others smiled and joined in the fun, coming, as it did, when mission had been accomplished.

You see, always a man to provoke opposing outlooks.

He’ll never quite be the hero Ronnie Moore, the last manager before Evans to lead Rotherham into the Championship and keep them there, was. Ronnie was, well, Ronnie, open, honest to a fault, impossible to dislike, and he also had that spell as a deadly Millers striker to fall back on.

When the dust has settled on Evans’ departure, memories of the excesses will fade and those of the successes will linger. He will be remembered for his achievements. Not with Ronnie affection, but certainly with respect.

And the man who so polarised people’s point of view, will, for once, leave no room for argument.

League Two promotion. League One promotion. Championship survival. Some of the greatest days in the club’s history. All in three years.

That’s what he did.


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