Rotherham United: How a horse race led to a thoroughbred performance and a goal to remember: Northampton 0 Millers 3
Rotherham United delayed their trip to Northampton Town because of a horse race.
One of the Millers backroom staff had a Cheltenham treble on the go. If his pick came in on Friday afternoon, he was in the money.
Paul Warne decided the coach could leave half an hour later, at 2.30pm, so his squad could watch. Good for banter, he reckoned, good for morale.
The horse lost. Rotherham didn’t.
The gamble that did pay off was Warne’s. After a 14-match unbeaten run had been followed by two surprise defeats, the manager made five changes for the clash at snowy, sub-zero, wind-chilled Sixfields.
The Millers were full of impish, energetic, one-touch irresistibility, their performance as good and complete as any in a thrilling season which has taken them into the League One play-off places.
Out went skipper Richard Wood, Anthony Forde and Joe Newell, who have played huge parts in Rotherham’s rise, along with Shaun Cummings and Caolan Lavery.
In came Josh Emmanuel, Matt Palmer, Jon Taylor, Ryan Williams and David Ball, with Will Vaulks moving from central midfield to centre-half to make way for Palmer.
“I’m paid to make brave decisions, I suppose,” said Warne. “It wasn’t really five changes, more like three. Bringing Josh and Bally back ... they’ve played the majority of the games.
“There is no point me harping on about having a good squad and then never making changes. I tried to freshen it up and it worked, so I can enjoy my weekend.”
It wasn’t really a gamble either, just strong, sensible management after a dip.
All the new faces had an impact and promotion is very much back on the agenda.
Northampton? Never at the races.
It took 17 minutes for the contest to be over. That’s when Michael Smith coolly controlled Vaulks’ long free-kick and dispatched his shot past former Rotherham goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell.
So complete was the Millers’ domination that the Cobblers’ first attempt on target, a tame 56th-effort easily gathered by Marek Rodak, brought mocking cheers from a large away following and ironic ones from the home contingent.
O’Donnell was Northampton’s best player, pulling off a wonder-save to keep out a fierce Richie Towell shot and denying Ball when the Rotherham striker made space for himself in the penalty area. There were other near-misses.
The snow fell in the second half but nowhere near as heavily as the home side did.
Ball, picked out by Williams, had too much power for O’Donnell just past the hour mark, before Towell applied the finishing touch to a stunning team move nine minutes from time.
“Second half especially, parts of our play were really good,” Warne said. “This is not a criticism, but Northampton set up not to lose. They had bodies behind the ball. We couldn’t get people in behind like we normally do. We had to be a bit more patient. The first goal probably settled our nerves.
“When you go on a run like we did, you sort of feel invincible. The last couple of games have knocked the lads back into shape, if that makes sense. I told them, if you make 90 per cent of your decisions well, you will win this game because you are the better team.”
It was so cold the 1,1,29 travelling fans were more in danger of losing fingers than Cheltenham stake money. They warmed their hands with a standing ovation at the end.
Taylor, on the right flank, had left-back Joe Bunney looking like a rabbit caught in headlights at times. On a day of good displays everywhere, Smith, Vaulks and ‘Mr Get It, Give it, Get It Again’ Palmer were the stand-out trio.
“Smudge was virtually unplayable,” Warne said. “I thought Will, who was my captain today, was excellent. Matty came in for his first 90 minutes for us for a while. When we had decent possession in the second half, you could see how controlled he is.”
“I might have got the first or the second goal,” said Warne, a former forward best known for his ability to win a throw-in. “I wouldn’t have scored the third.”
In the 81st minute, Emmanuel, on his own byline, lifted the ball up to Palmer who handed over to Forde who found Ball. Ball passed down the right to Smith who teased the Cobblers defence before finding Williams and Forde. They combined in a deft flash to set up Towell for a precision chip which did perfect justice to the build-up.
Considering the conditions, the move was even more sublime.
“The third goal was fantastic,” said Ball. “The gaffer says it’s probably the best Rothers goal he’s ever seen. You don’t see many teams getting goals like that. It shows the quality we have within the squad.”
The top three looks beyond them but, on this form, the Millers will head the chasing bunch of runners and riders.
With nine matches left, the gap between them and the team just outside the top six, Peterborough United, is nine points.
The horse, by the way, finished fourth. Rotherham, wobble over, look a good bet to do the same.