Rotherham United: Odds tumbling on Warnock escape act ... Ipswich 0 Millers 1
In a mad, marvellous March which has seen Rotherham United transform their survival prospects, Neil Warnock finally experienced how it feels to lose.
The Millers won again to make it four victories and a draw in their last five matches as they produced a classic away performance to move out of the bottom three of the Championship for the first time since The Messiah took charge eight games ago.
But Warnock found himself £1 down at a ground where home supporters notoriously goad him, having had a little wager with his staff that the first insult would arrive in the opening 60 seconds.
Nothing until the 20th minute, by which time his team were busy frustrating Mick McCarthy’s side and on their way to taking another memorable step towards the great escape.
“Well, I was shocked,” Warnock grinned. “They didn’t really abuse me. 20 minutes, was it? I was in the game by that time. I didn’t really grasp it.”
What he does grasp is that his team of battlers now have a very real chance of pulling off a feat that looked almost impossible towards the end of February.
With eight games to play when action resumes in early April following the international break, there is still plenty of work to be done.
But, in five matches, the Millers have gone from being six points off a safety spot to two points above the drop zone as triumphs over Brentford, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and now the Tractor Boys, coupled with last week’s 3-3 thriller with Derby County, have seen them overhaul MK Dons and Fulham.
To put that incredible run into context, it is matched in the division only by Burnley, now four points clear at the top of the table and heading towards the title. The Clarets, however, haven’t done it while facing four promotion contenders on the spin.
“Yeah, it’s nice to be out of it, it’s no good saying it isn’t,” the manager said. “It just shows what an achievement it is by these lads really. Four wins and a draw and we’re only just outside the bottom three. It just shows how far adrift we were.”
With his fan stake in place, Warnock took another gamble, opting for Lloyd Doyley, out of service since being injured on his debut at Turf Moor a month ago, at centre-half and keeping hamstring victim Richard Wood in reserve.
It worked perfectly as Town’s vaunted front two of Freddie Sears and Daryl Murphy were kept at bay and natural-born scorer Brett Pitman, playing just behind them, was unable to affect the game
“I wanted to use Doyley against Searsy. I’ve had Freddy before and he’s a quick little lad,” Warnock said. “I thought we could do well with Doyley and it gives Woody another two weeks on his hamstring to make sure he’s ready after the break.”
Beside Doyley was the towering presence of Kirk Broadfoot, always odds on to have a good game these days.
The Millers were untroubled throughout the first half to the point where there were ironic cheers from Town followers as a tame shot from Luke Chambers hit the target in the 39th minute.
They showed the home side how it should be done with the move of the match just before half-time, Leon Best turning the ball in at the near post for his third goal in two matches following a run down the right and perfect low delivery from Matt Derbyshire who had been released by Lee Frecklington’s pass.
Lone striker Best was starting only because Danny Ward’s back seized up a couple of hours before kick-off and the former Premier League hot-shot seized his moment, giving the Ipswich defence as much trouble as they could handle.
At one point, as he took the battle to Cristophe Berra and Tommy Smith yet again, he decided he’d had enough of the woollen protectors he was wearing to keep out the East Anglian cold. The gloves, metaphorically and literally, were off.
The second half saw Rotherham resolutely defiant in the face of increased Ipswich pressure, with half-time substitute Liam Feeney making an instant impact on his Town debut until his influence waned in the face of the attention of Joe Mattock.
Events last week against the Rams as the Millers fought back from 3-0 down to 3-3 had been a crazy and unbelievable, yet here they were anything but. This was organisation at its best, team resistance built on clear thinking and good planning as much as on commitment, heart and desire.
There they go again, running themselves into the ground for the cause: Commitment, Heart and Desire, the three midfield Musketeers otherwise known as Derbyshire, Frecklington and Richie Smallwood.
Behind them, Stephen Kelly made a vital goalline clearance in the 48th minute from Sears’ shot, but the best second-half chance of all fell to the Millers and Grant Ward who skewed the ball wide from Greg Halford’s supply with only the goalkeeper to beat in the 88th minute.
In time added on, after Halford had thrown himself in front of Feeney to block a cross as Ipswich men queued up to take advantage, substitute Ben Pringle had a clear shooting opportunity, and surely the script was written for the ex-Rotherham men to cruelly spoil his old club’s day.
Warnock is in charge of scripts these days, though. And he loves a happy ending. The ball went wide.
“I thought it was a thoroughly professional performance,” he said. “We are limited, but we are organised. We know what we are doing, we break well and we try to score goals. There were balls into the box and long throws, but I don’t think Lee Camp had a shot to save really.
“Our two centre-halves were superb, the full-backs did well and in front of them Greg and the two lads in midfield were fantastic. You have to say Besty as well, and young Grant came to the fore.
“After half-time, we rode that storm, we rode that 10 or 15 minutes, and after that I thought we were quite comfortable.”
By the final whistle, the insults business had turned full circle, Warnock no longer a target as the Ipswich crowd rounded on their own with boos and chants of “What a load of rubbish”.
That gave way to 344 joyful travelling Millers singing “We are staying up, I say, we are staying up.”
Party time at Portman Road. Party-pooper McCarthy who delivered his own damning verdict on his team: “P*ss-poor. I can’t be any more honest or plain than that.”
So, anyone fancy a bet on Warnock pulling off the miracle?
I’ll join you in a £1.
Ipswich Town (4-4-2): Bialkowski 6; Chambers 6, Smith 6, Berra 6, Knudsen 6; Skuse 6, Douglas 5 (Feeney H-T, 7), Hyam 5 (Bru 74), Pitman 5 (Pringle 70); Sears 6, Murphy 5. Subs not used: Crowe, Digby, Foley, Maitland-Niles.
Rotherham United (4-1-4-1: Camp 6; Kelly 7, Broadfoot 8, Doyley 8, Mattock 7; Halford 8; G Ward 7, Smallwood 7, Frecklington 8, Derbyshire 8 (Newell 78); Best 8 (Clarke-Harris 84). Subs not used: Kenny, Wood, D Ward, Green, Burke.
Goal: Best 44 (Rotherham).
Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).
Attendance: 20,318 (344).