Magic Man Richard Wood writes his own fairytale as Rotherham United's Wembley dream becomes a reality
The ball hung in the air just a little longer, as it left Joe Newell’s left boot with a satisfying thud.
After 103 minutes of play-off combat final, in the sapping heat and muggy humidity in and around Wembley, legs were heavy and minds were tired.
Play had slowed down immeasurably as Rotherham United and Shrewsbury Town, League One’s two best teams after champions Wigan Athletic and second-placed Blackburn Rovers, slugged it out in the northwest London under the famous arch.
Then, in the 103rd minute, it happened. Wood, a head-it-and-kick-it centre-half of some distinction approaching the twilight years of his career, read the flight of Newell’s free-kick perfectly as it curled invitingly into his path.
Shrewsbury sub Lenell John-Lewis’ defending was more M&S than anything, and the finish, stabbed into the bottom right corner of Dean Henderson’s goal, was hardly Harrods-esque either. But it didn’t matter. The Millers were ahead. Again. They had 17 minutes or so to hang on. They had one foot in the Championship.
At a place where so many fairytales have been written or scuppered over the years, this was Wood’s own. With his Millers career seeming all-but over, a loan deal to non-league bound Chesterfield was mooted as recently as January but five months later, he proudly led out the club at Wembley, the blue-and-white captain’s armband tightly hugging his left bicep.
A product of the Sheffield Wednesday academy, the Millers are his only focus these days. Black boots. Red-and-white heart.
Earlier, Millers fans had snaked down the M1 in their thousands, expectant and excited, leaving the town in the early morning. Kits from throughout the ages were dug out for the day, some printed with the names and numbers of legends of the past.
But today, as two more in Paul Warne and Paul Hurst led their teams into battle for a place in the Championship, it was all about the here and now.
As the Wembley stadium announcer, following the modern-day footballing trend of trying to ramp up the atmosphere by drowning out fans’ songs with random music, announced the Millers’ starting line-up in an unnervingly over-the-top fashion, it was their very own ‘Magic Man’ Wood who received the biggest cheer of all.
Perhaps it was prophetic; as was the song that greeted the Millers as they emerged from the tunnel for their warm up. Dreams, by Gabrielle. A sped-up, remixed version, of course. But ask Wood. They do come true.
Some time later, the teams emerged again, this time ready for battle. Fatboy Slim was the DJ’s choice, by now barely audible over the roar which greeted the sides from both sets of fans. Right here, right now indeed. Time to deliver.
Warne and Hurst, whose time together as Millers teammates and their friendship provided an interesting subplot to events on the field, embraced warmly before kick-off before Hurst swapped his suit for a more casual attire. Warne dressed all in black, a silver ‘Men United’ badge on his left breast the only distraction. There was to be more decoration to come.
To the right of the Wembley Press box, a dozen or so shirtless fans had gathered in an attempt to get the Millers going. Their quest received a helping hand from referee Rob Jones when Wood tangled with Shrewsbury’s No.6, Omar Beckles, and went down in the area.
Jones pointed to the spot, the Millers were jubilant. David Ball stepped up. Henderson stepped off, his line by three or four yards. As Ball struck his effort, eight other players were in the box. Henderson saved to his right.
The whole ground held its breath, then one half held their heads. A golden chance, inside the first ten minutes, was squandered.
Beckles continued to ride his luck by grappling with Wood and as the lush Wembley turf was sprinkled by muggy rain before kick-off, players routinely lost their footing.
Then, Shrews’ Shaun Whalley lost his head; needlessly clattering into Joe Mattock’s with his forearm. It was the challenge of a Whalley by name and nature, who was perhaps lucky to escape with only a booking. It wasn’t to be his only piece of fortune all afternoon.
Then came the third instalment of Beckles v Wood; two number sixes, one with a sort of braided-ponytail shining in the Wembley sun and the other with a No.2 buzz-cut he has sported all his career.
As Newell floated the corner in from the left, there was only one winner - Wood’s header kissing the turf and ending up high in Henderson’s net.
Substance had very much beaten style; the singing section in block 138 increased from a few dozen to a few thousand. And there was only one name on their lips, rising high into the Wembley air just as Wood himself had done moments earlier. When it mattered.
Buoyed by a remarkable statistic flashed up on screen by Sky Sports - that since 1989, 23 of the 27 teams to score first in a League One play-off final have gone on to win the game - the Millers were buoyed, the industrious Richie Towell giving Henderson a nervous moment with a dipping volley that flashed over.
But just as the Millers were dreaming of the Championship again, of derbies with United and Wednesday and the promise of better days to come after their humiliating relegation last year, the sucker punch came. The free-kick was well-worked, an intricate routine that caught the Millers flat-footed. Could it have been prevented? The question was already being asked before Alex Rodman had poked the Shrews level, despite the best efforts of Wood on the line.
The singing section had reduced in numbers by now but as one striker, the injured Carlton Morris, ripped off his shirt and punched the Wembley tunnel walls in frustration after picking up an injury, another - the on-loan Blades man, Caolan Lavery, squandered a golden chance to win it in normal time.
Hurst’s Shrews, who lost in this stadium in the final of the Checkatrade Trophy earlier this season, played more games than any other in the top four leagues of English football in 2017/18 and as the clock ticked towards full-time, it showed.
Substitute Ryan Williams looked bright after coming on, forcing a superb save from Henderson, and in the dying seconds of normal time, Wood rose highest and hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. It wasn’t to be. Not yet. Henderson was still not beaten again, and extra-time beckoned.
Warne, the Millers fan who famously cried in his first week as manager of his club after yet another painful Championship defeat, is a different beast with a year in the job and tried to get the fans going at the start of extra-time, before another handshake with former teammate Hurst.
For a few seconds, the two stood, side by side, in no man’s land between the two technical areas, just watching their respective teams on the grandest stage of all.
They were eventually parted by the fourth official.
Five minutes into the extra half-hour - as a Millers fan dressed as a Mexican luchador appeared from nowhere, completely out of place amongst his mates in Millers kits but equally as oblivious - Whalley brought down Williams and was lucky to avoid a second booking.
It mattered not, though. Williams won another free-kick, Newell’s thud reverberated around Wembley and seconds later, it was bedlam.
“That’s my captain” screamed Wood’s partner Jade, with whom he opened a playhouse and coffee shop near their West Yorkshire home six months ago and the defender, finding another burst of energy in what he later described as “disgusting heat”, ran half the length of the pitch, towards his kids sat just behind the dugout, before disappearing under a crowd of teammates.
The Millers weren’t about to let their chance slip again.
They had played their part on April Fool’s Day last year when they were the first side in English football to be relegated, eventually finishing the season with just five wins and 23 points.
And 421 days of wound-licking and soul-searching later, this was their moment of redemption. Battered and bruised, hagged and hobbling from a broken toe he picked up in the first half, Wood led from the front - or the back - as the Shrews threw everything forward in the dying minutes. Then, the final whistle arrived. Joy. Elation. Promotion.
As the pitch podium was hastily-built in front of them, midfielder Will Vaulks grabbed a magic hat from the crowd and sang Wood’s song into a selfie stick. Wood himself was grabbed by Sky and handed his man-of-the-match award.
Michael Smith, who had received almost the biggest cheer of the day by digging deep and closing down a long ball on the touchline, stood motionless, possibly knackered, taking in the moment.
Warne hugged everyone he could lay his hands on, many more than once, before following his skipper as he led the Millers up the Wembley steps, and into the Championship.
In a season of magic moments, their very own magic man delivered surely the most magical of all when it mattered.
And long after the champagne had dried, this fabulous old arena finally emptied and Wood departed with a winners’ medal around his neck, the trophy in one hand and two custom magic hats in the other, they sang his song all night.