It was the news no Millers fan wanted to hear. Neil Warnock had transformed their season, Neil Warnock had kept them in the Championship, Neil Warnock would move them up the table next year.
Neil Warnock, they’d sung at grounds around the country as Rotherham went on a crazy, against-all-odds 11-match unbeaten run to seal their second-tier status, is a Red.
Not any longer. He’s left, looking for the club with which he can achieve the eighth career promotion that would make him English football’s most successful ever manager outside of the Premier League.
There were 11 other departures in the same week as the club announced their retained list. Some good pros bade farewell, but, with all due respect, their exits hardly registered when placed alongside the goodbye of the miracle-working boss.
Now chairman Tony Stewart, a man not averse to pulling off the seemingly impossible, has to perform a wonder of his own: appointing someone who can fill the shoes of a manager who reigned for only 16 matches but won the hearts of the town in his three-month spell.
There are runners and riders everywhere. Former Millers boss Steve Evans was an early bookies’ favourite, then one-time Blackburn Rovers manager Gary Bowyer topped the list.
Ex-Sheffield Wednesday head coach Stuart Gray, now working at Fulham, is in the frame and Hibernian’s Alan Stubbs has been mentioned. Both have been under serious consideration by Rotherham in the past.
Keith Hill, Dougie Freedman, Billy Davies, Chris Powell, Steve Cotterill, Neil Lennon, Steve McClaren, Tony Mowbray and Gareth Ainsworth are among others to have been linked to the role.
About the only thing you can safely say is that it won’t be Evans, Neil Redfearn or Sir Alex Ferguson.
Stewart is pleased with the calibre of applicants, is prepared to approach a club for a man already in work if necessary and has begun assessing the candidates. A long list should become a shortlist in the next couple of days.
A week ago, it looked as if Warnock would commit himself to the club.
Stewart thought they had a deal and Warnock anticipated he would be staying right up until a couple of days before the announcement last Wednesday that left the Millers looking for their fourth boss in less than a year.
The manager had intended to travel up to South Yorkshire from his Cornwall home on Thursday for final talks, but Wednesday phone calls between the two men brought an end to those plans.
Both men have agreed that the reasons for the late change of heart will remain confidential.
However, it is well documented Warnock is attracted by that record-breaking eighth promotion he felt he would be unable to achieve at Rotherham, and his assertion that consolidating the Millers’ place in the second tier is a three-year project while he wants only one more season in the game is a valid point.
The makeshift portable buildings at the club’s Roundwood training base have itched away at him in a different way but to the same degree as his promotion desire.
Stewart will make all possible improvements - and AESSEAL New York Stadium bears glittering testimony to what he can achieve - but there will always be an unwinnable struggle to bring the complex up to Championship standard while ever the Millers don’t own the site.
Neither man has mentioned it since their parting of the ways, but maybe money played a part too.
Warnock, quite rightly after what he has achieved in management, has a strong sense of his own worth and doesn’t come cheap. Stewart, quite rightly after what he has achieved in business and in taking the Millers from administration and homelessness to where they are today, has his own ideas on fair pricing.
“I just felt, in the end, that if I stayed it would be for the wrong reasons,” Warnock said.
He meant by that, I think, that, having been won over by the warmth shown to him and wife Sharon by supporters, he would have been letting his heart rule his head by remaining with Rotherham when, in pure football terms, his short-term ambition doesn’t fit with the Millers’ long-term requirements.
New coaches will be required too as Kevin Blackwell and Ronnie Jepson have departed with him. That holy trinity comes and goes as a package.
Blackwell was organised, knowledgeable, a prodigiously hard worker, very forthright in his approach and eminently capable of getting his message across and instilling the ‘Warnock way’.
The feedback from staff and players on Jepson, who focused on the attackers, was universally positive. Warnock watched one session the former Huddersfield Town frontman put on and described it as the best he’d ever seen.
One of Warnock’s last duties was to advise the club which out-of-contract players he felt were worth keeping, and talks will now begin with right-back Stephen Kelly, centre-backs Kirk Broadfoot and Richard Wood and strikers Matt Derbyshire and Leon Best.
There are no surprises there as all five were major figures in the survival push Warnock instigated after Stewart’s SOS call in February for him to take over from Redfearn.
Equally, there are no shocks in the 11 players released. It’s sad to see 2014 Wembley penalty shootout hero Adam Collin leave, but the goalkeeper played only one league match this season and spent much of his time on loan at Aberdeen.
Midfielder Paul Green wasn’t every supporters’ favourite after one or two high-profile mistakes, but it’s easy forget how good he was for the Millers when they first returned to the second tier under Evans two seasons ago. “Our best player,” said Evans after a couple of months in the Championship. “By a country distance.”
Even at his lowest point, in the 5-2 home defeat against Ipswich this season when he was at fault for two goals, Green never hid. The 33-year-old is a brave and honest pro who still has the ‘legs’ to go box to box and could be a ‘promotion’ signing for a League One club in much the same way former Millers centre-half Craig Morgan proved to be for Wigan Athletic.
Some people have complained that the timing of the retained list is wrong, that the club should have waited until after the appointment of a new manager. But the Football League requires teams not involved in the play-offs to provide them with names within two weeks of their final game.
The name Millers fans now want, of course, is that of their next boss. Ironically for a club as stable and properly-run as Rotherham, it’s the third time in seven months Stewart has had to go through the recruitment process.
Despite his obvious disappointment, he and Warnock part on good terms.
Warnock spoke of a “genuine bond “ between the duo, and added: “I’ll tell you when the chairman really made his mark on me, it was after I’d taken over and didn’t win any of my first three games.
“After the 1-0 defeat at Reading in my third match, Tony came up and said to me: ‘This is fantastic. I can really see the improvement in the team.’
“I really needed to hear it. It’s easy for a chairman to be supportive when you’re winning, but he stepped up at a much harder time. I don’t forget things like that.”
And, with that, the man who saved the season was gone.
Stewart, the man who saved the club, thanked him for the job he’d done and immediately looked forward, not back.
“We’re in good shape,” he said. “We have to move on. I’m confident we will do that in the right manner.”