Neil Warnock’s admirable and quite remarkable transformation of a club seemingly doomed to relegation when he arrived has provided one of the stories of the Championship season.
To the surprise of no one, he has done it with a style which owes far more to the philosophies of Charles Hughes than anything the 21st century has had to offer, but needs must and even route one football demands the discipline, organisation and fitness not usually found in abundance in a squad which looked to have accepted their fate by January.
With both clubs on the verge of mathematical safety before kick off, the game represented a new, interesting and difficult challenge in David Wagner’s English football education. Thankfully, aerial bombardment is a rarity in the Championship but as a test of resilience, countering the Millers style was an opportunity for the German.
It is one thing to prepare for a direct style of play, but quite another to experience it. In the first 15 minutes, Rotherham rattled Town regularly and with some force – the visitors struggled to cope and seemed determined to hand the initiative to their hungry hosts.
Free kicks and corners – bread and butter to Warnock’s game plan – were freely conceded and with long, spearing throw ins adding to the Millers’ artillery, it seemed we were all in for a long, neck stretching night.
Ugly as it is, the methodology is effective when done well and there was a sense of inevitability when the home side took the lead with a rare moment of beauty. Not really – a corner awarded by an extraordinarily inept linesman who looked as shell shocked as the visitors was won at the back post, the ball squirting to Halford who took credit for a goal which owed far more to a big deflection off Whitehead.
Having imposed their style, the home side continued to dominate and a long night seemed inevitable. Any attempt by Town to get the ball on the grass was easily and regularly thwarted and the next chance soon followed with Ward, (G) not (D), latching on to a long ball behind Davidson only to be thwarted by a decent Steer save.
Another corner caused more consternation, with 3 home players in contention to score on the back post when a partial clearance came back with interest, but a tame effort was easily gathered by Steer.
At this point, it was easy to see how and why Rotherham’s season has been turned around so dramatically – though not easy on the eye, the bombardment creates chances and defensive panic and confusion; the game can be put beyond you in double quick time.
Fortunately for Town, and quite significantly against the run of play, the otherwise rather disappointing Van La Parra won the ball back after initially losing possession, the ball fell to Bunn who then slipped in Wells to fire in under Camp (who should have done much better).
Goals change games, they say, and the cliche held firm as the home side visibly deflated at the blow. A torrid 20 minutes for the visitors was left behind as they took a grip of a game they were rarely to let go, even if fluency was at a premium for much of the time.
Wells, who played well all night against a typically robust defence, latched on to an excellent long ball from Lynch (you will notice that our long balls are described as the epitome of accuracy while theirs are a bombardment!), but could only fire against Camp from a tight angle.
Defensively, Town began to comfortably cope with Rotherham, Lynch and Hudson easily dealing with long balls and, crucially, now finding the time and space to get the ball to their midfield to build.
Other than the Wells effort following the goal, however, chances were at a premium for both sides and an interesting half, short on sustained quality but not incident, ended all square.
Town dominated the rest of the game with just a little more composure in possession. While the aerial route still caused minor difficulties at times, it was the visitors’ style which largely prevailed, helped by the early introduction of Paterson and Matmour.
Many supporters are undecided on the latter, but they should be patient – he added a touch of class to proceedings with good movement and intelligent passing; though he still needs further acclimatisation to the rigours of 2nd tier English football, he is beginning to look more at home and he is unlikely to face much more of a culture shock than the New York stadium experience against a Warnock team.
A Joe Lolley dribble and shot brought a good save from Camp – tellingly, he was named man of the match by the home team despite his weak attempt for Wells’ goal – with Paterson just unable to pick out a colleague from the rebound.
Matmour set up Wells for a decent long range effort which went just wide as Town’s grip on midfield tightened, and the two combined again only for Camp to keep out the Bermudian.
A Lynch effort from distance drew some oohs and ahs, but it wasn’t troubling Camp who let it drift wide before Town’s final effort ended up in the net but ruled out by an offside flag. Wells had retrieved a ball to the corner with a deft, first time ball back to Paterson but the on loan man’s clever return ball found Wells just beyond the last man.
A creditable draw against in form opposition, mathematical safety achieved and a new learning experience for Wagner added up to a reasonably satisfying night for the Terriers who can now turn their thoughts towards an important and potentially exciting pre season.
For Rotherham, safety is yet to be entirely secured but their transformation under Warnock has been one of the stories of the Championship season. At the risk of patronising them, it is good that they will remain in the division – their compact ground can generate a decent atmosphere, their fans aren’t delusional like many in the division and beating the budget odds is always an attractive narrative.
Wagner now has the luxury of experimentation time having achieved his number one objective – and supporters can finally stop bloody worrying about a relegation which was never going to happen!