On a day of defeat, Rotherham United celebrated a season of success.
Losing to Blackburn Rovers meant a flat finale to their home campaign and the end of the long unbeaten run manager Neil Warnock was so desperate to protect until the players head off on their holidays next week.
But the miracle he and his band of battlers have pulled off since his February arrival to save the Millers from almost certain relegation was what mattered here.
Six wins and five draws in 11 matches will go down in Championship history, not just the annals of Millers folklore.
So Shane Duffy’s sixth-minute decider was a mere footnote to proceedings as fans stayed behind after the final whistle and Rotherham United’s survival heroes embarked on a lap of honour.
There was the man himself, down to his black tracksuit bottoms and red short sleeves, basking in the spring sunshine and his incredible achievement, while good old Frank blared from the PA system the club’s anthem taken from their stadium’s name.
In typical fashion, Warnock managed to stage-manage events so he was last off the pitch, showing a touch of the craftiness which has helped him win Rotherham’s battle against all odds.
Supporters and players love him, and he loves them. How they all hope his heart rules his head and he forsakes the chance to move to a bigger club to strut his stuff in Rotherham again next year. They just want to hear him croon:
“I want to be a part of it
New York, New York.”
It seemed wrong that a run which saw Rotherham climb out of the bottom three by unforgettably lowering the colours of one promotion contender after another should end so tamely against a team above them in the table only on goal difference.
With safety all but sealed three weeks ago with the 4-0 thumping of MK Dons and made mathematically certain by drawing at Wolves eight days ago, Warnock felt this match might have been lost even before his side tried to win it.
“I was concerned before the game,” he revealed. “They were five minutes late coming in. They were having autographs, photographs, they came in with seven minutes to go. The bell is already nearly going. That’s bad preparation. I hate that.
“We do well because we are prepared and I didn’t think we were. The goal, he doesn’t even have to jump, it’s a Sunday League goal, so I am disappointed at that.”
Duffy’s free header from Matt Grimes’ sixth-minute corner - the only time the Millers have conceded from a set-piece during Warnock’s tenure - settled the contest.
This could have been the veteran boss’s final home fling. He’s after a record-breaking eighth promotion and knows he’s unlikely to find it at Rotherham where he says Championship consolidation and bringing the training facilities up to the standards of the second tier are more sensible, realistic priorities over the next three years.
But there are others things he does find in abundance at the club with the family feel he has taken to his heart.
A totally supportive chairman, the ready acceptance he needs to spend some of his week at his Cornish home because of wife Sharon’s illness, players who will give everything for him and supporters who send his missus flowers and raise money for her to give to charity because they appreciate her selflessness in telling him to take the job in the first place.
Mrs Warnock , to the delight of Millers everywhere, travelled up from Launceston to attend the end-of-season awards night at New York after the game.
Her hubby was full of his usual humour in his speech, but there’s no denying the quiet emotion the occasion stirred.
All the money and promotion prospects in the world can’t forge bonds like that.
As the whole of Rotherham waits for his decision, due in the next fortnight, we can only hope Warnock ignores his reservations.
“These little town blues
Are melting away.”
The home side had their chances against Rovers and should have equalised just before the break when Frazer Richardson crossed and Leon Best, at the back post, somehow headed wide from point-blank range.
Joe Mattock and Grant Ward had shots and Matt Derbyshire and Richard Wood wasted good heading opportunities, while goalkeeper Lee Camp foiled Danny Graham and Jordi Gomez to keep the margin down to one.
It was a nothing end to a run which has had everything: wins over Brentford, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Ipswich, Leeds and MK and that dizzy day against Derby which produced a comeback to beat anything Ol’ Blue Eyes ever managed.
In years to come, they will talk of Matt Derbyshire at the back stick at Hillsborough, how Lee Frecklington bashed Boro in the dying minutes, how Kirky finally scored at stadiummk. As for Saturday, Shane who?
“It’s hard when there is nothing at stake,” Warnock said. “It’s like pre-season. I hate it. I hate the Capital One Cup, the early games. You have to get yourself going.
“In fairness, the players put the work in, but you need that edge and that’s what competitiveness gives you. No matter what you say to anybody, you lose your edge when you have nothing to play for. That’s life, I’m afraid.
“We lost the game but I can’t fault the effort. They gave everything.”
Some of the Millers’ sharpness has gone since the demolition of the Dons. The spirit has been there, but wins have become draws and the goals have dried up. The difference between needing to win a match and merely wanting to.
But when they did need to, from victory over the Bees on February 27 to survival Saturday at Molineux on April 23, they stepped up.
Behind that revival was the inspiration of one man. That’s why every Miller wants him to stay.
By the time the 67-year-old had given a last wave and disappeared down the tunnel, the strains of Sinatra had faded into the late-afternoon air.
But Warnock, in Rotherham circles, will always be:
“Top of the list
King of the hill
A number one.”
Rotherham United (4-1-4-1): Camp 8; Kelly 7, Broadfoot 7, Wood 6, Mattock 6 (Richardson 40, 7); Halford 7; G Ward 6, Smallwood 7, Frecklington 6 (Thomas 71), Derbyshire 6 (D Ward 73); Best 5. Subs not used: Kenny, Clarke-Harris, Belaid, Green.
Blackburn Rovers (3-4-1-2): Steele7; Duffy 8, Hanley 9, Kilgallon 6; Marshall 6, Lowe 6, Lenihan 6, Grimes 6 (Conway 86); J Gomez 7 (Evans 79); Bennett 6 (Jackson 68), Graham 7. Subs not used: Raya, Henley, Brown, Mahoney, Conway.
Goals: Duffy 6 (Blackburn).
Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).
Attendance: 11,035 (1,225).