The heavy Yorkshire presence at the top end of the Championship is a healthy indicator of the current resurgence clubs in the area. Leeds have led the way for the majority of the season, whilst the recent surge forward from Sheffield United is just as impressive. However, it’s at the opposite end of the table, at Rotherham United, where perhaps one of the most impressive performances amongst the Yorkshire contingent is easily overlooked.
Rotherham are currently sitting inside the relegation zone on goal difference, however, under Paul Warne the ‘Millers’ have performed admirably despite their pre-season tag as ‘Relegation favourites.’ After a disastrous campaign in their last Championship stint, Warne has rebuilt Rotherham and successfully guided the club back to the second-tier at the first attempt via a Wembley play-off triumph.
Although the Millers were only away from the Championship for a single season, there’s no denying the landscape of the division has changed significantly. Only five teams, including Rotherham, in the current rota of Championship teams have failed to play in the Premier League, with the majority prepared to spend untold riches in their attempts to return there. The scope of the challenge facing squads like Rotherham, in their attempts to consolidate at this level, has never been greater.
Compared to some of their divisional rivals, Rotherham are operating on a shoe-string budget. Chairman Tony Stewart is a generous and understanding owner, who has funded his local club admirably. But multi-million-pound deals are the normality in the second tier now, a stark contrast to a club who’s record transfer expenditure stands at around £500,000. Rotherham have the lowest budget in the league, and despite promotion estimated to be worth around six million to the club, knew this would be the case upon their promotion in May.
However, under Warne, a squad has been assembled astutely that with a handful of games remaining, has a fighting chance of surviving relegation. Being able to avoid an immediate drop to League One is key for the Millers, and to achieve it Warne has had to be innovative in his additions to the squad.
The Yorkshire outfit have operated mainly in the loan market alongside free agents, with stars from the previous promotion-winning season lined up for returns. Midfield influencer Richie Towell returned for a second spell on loan at the New York stadium, as did trusted shot-stopper Marek Rodak. The majority of the team that earned Rotherham promotion were entrusted with their well-earned chance to play Championship football.
Rotherham’s transfer activity may appear modest compared to the majority of their divisional rivals, but Warne has worked hard to instil qualities into his squad that perhaps can’t be bought. Throughout the season, Rotherham have shown fantastic character, with a non-stop work ethic. They completely buy into what Warne himself describes as ‘a humanistic’ approach, and they play with heart and commitment, in a group that perform as a team rather than individuals. Whilst teams have come into Yorkshire and outclassed Warne’s men in terms of ability, there have been very few, if any, who have outclassed the Miller’s in terms of effort, tenacity and character.
These attributes, as admirable as they are, obviously aren’t enough to avoid relegation. But there has been quality on show too, with Rotherham possessing a fighting chance of survival. Their home form has been paramount, with 26 of their 36 points being earned at their recently constructed home. Warne and his men have made the New York Stadium a difficult place to come, with a well-drilled, rigid structure which is hard to beat. Their excellent discipline and unapologetic stubbornness are perfectly exemplified by their recent run, with just two defeats in their past nine games.
However, the majority of Rotherham’s recent results have been draws, with five of them coming consecutively to begin the aforementioned run. It’s important for teams to be able to grind out results to avoid defeats, but they struggled at times to turn the stalemates into those all-important wins. Despite their well-structured approach, the Millers have struggled at times at both ends of the pitch. They have the third worst defensive record in the league (61 goals conceded) and one of the leanest attacks with just 40 goals accrued. Perhaps this is a reflection on a squad where the majority has limited Championship experience. Just like their manager, there’s no denying that the Rotherham squad is punching above their weight, in a division with a grossly uneven playing field.
Following Rotherham’s relegation in their prior Championship spell, chairman Tony Stewart felt that his club “didn’t do themselves justice”. They have already surpassed their victory total from that campaign (five) and have performed admirably. Despite their current position, if you’d have offered most Millers fans the current scenario, in the final relegation slot on goal difference alone with nine games left in August, you’d expect most would have taken it eagerly. Any ‘fears’ that they may not do themselves justice under Warne this time around have been muted.
As the season winds down to a conclusion, the Millers are left facing a tough run-in. It would appear, bar miracles, that Ipswich Town and Bolton Wanderers have already been condemned to the third tier, so there is one final relegation slot to fill. Under Warne’s tutelage, there is every chance that Rotherham can continue to defy the odds and guarantee their Championship status, an achievement which would surely be the stand-out managerial success in Yorkshire – regardless of how the scenario between the Northern contingent at the top-end of the table plays out between now and May.