Not just mission accomplished. Mission exceeded.
After the February 27 win over Brentford, manager Neil Warnock surveyed a daunting run of March fixtures and had only one aim: For third-bottom Rotherham United to still be in Championship contention with MK Dons, the team one place and three points above them, come April.
Heading into Saturday’s April 2 home clash with Leeds United, the Millers are two points and two places clear of the drop zone, having overtaken MK and overhauled Fulham, the West London millionaires who nobody envisaged being dragged into the survival scrap.
In a mad month where every team the Millers have faced have been promotion contenders, Warnock, now eight games into his rescue act, has seen his side win at Sheffield Wednesday in the South Yorkshire derby, beat Middlesbrough, fight back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with Derby County and triumph over Ipswich Town at Portman Road.
“You look at the fixtures ... if we could have picked up four points in the last four games, we would have been delighted really,” Warnock said. “We’ve got 10. 13 points out of the last five games.”
Rotherham had been six points adrift of MK and a safety spot before victory over the Bees.
The new manager has been dubbed ‘The Messiah’ for producing an almost unthinkable eight-point swing, but is quick to hand the praise to a squad he says are giving him everything.
“It is a fantastic achievement from a group of lads who don’t know when they’re down,” he said. “Look at the Derby match, the mistakes we made. And what do we do? Three goals in nine minutes. It’s absolutely fantastic.”
The Millers have transformed their safety push to such remarkable effect that Brentford, who have slumped since their loss at AESSEAL New York Stadium, are, along with Bristol City, only four points in front of them.
Next week, with the Leeds clash followed by a midweek trip to Bristol and then a visit to Milton Keynes, will go a long way to deciding Rotherham’s fate this season.
Warnock, a veteran of seven promotions and successful against-all-odds survival campaigns with Torquay United and QPR, knows there is much work to do in a busy April which sees them play seven times, before the season’s May 7 finale at Hull City, and that the recent heroics will count for nothing if they dip against teams who, on paper at least, don’t look as strong as March’s awesome foursome.
“We won’t sit on our laurels,” he pledged. “The players know I’m not like that. I want to get as many points as I can. We are nowhere near out of the woods, but it is nice to see ourselves out of the bottom three and putting pressure on other teams.
“One or two teams probably don’t expect to be in there. We’ve got to make sure we look after ourselves.”
Last year, 42 points would have been enough to stay up, but the figure this time around will surely be higher.
The Millers, having already equalled last season’s total of 11 wins, have 39, Fulham 38 and MK, now occupying the third and final relegation spot, 37.
A team like Fulham, never in serious trouble until now, might just find life a little more uncomfortable than the Millers, battle-hardened after a season of struggle, used to scrapping for their lives, up for the fight and embracing the challenge under their inspiring leader.
“Someone asked: ‘Do you feel the pressure?’” Warnock said. “I don’t feel the pressure. I’m enjoying it. I’m going to enjoy myself to the end of the season.
“I want the lads to enjoy it and you can see out there they are doing; they’re enjoying every minute.”
The enjoyment factor would be off the scale for the 67-year-old if Rotherham, having looked near-certainties for relegation before that Brentford encounter, manage to pull off the great escape.
“Would keeping them up be your ever biggest achievement?” a journalist enquired after the Millers had won at Hillsborough and hope was just beginning to stir.
Warnock responded to a question with a question.
“Have you seen the fixtures we’ve got coming up?” he asked, thinking ahead to Boro, the Rams and the Tractor Boys
“By a mile it would be,” he said. “By an absolute mile.”