Rotherham United: One year on from the magic of Wembley

Alex Revell scores his Wembley wonder-goal

Alex Revell scores his Wembley wonder-goal

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A year ago today, Tony Stewart was enjoying one of the best days his life.

His Rotherham United team had come back from 2-0 down against Leyton Orient in the League One Play-off Final at Wembley. His striker, Alex, Revell, had scored that long-range wonder-goal.

His goalkeeper, Adam Collin had won the Millers the penalty shoot-out. The followers of his club, all 20,000 of them who’d made their way down the M1, produced never-to-be-forgotten scenes, culminating in mass choruses of the Frank Sinatra anthem bearing the name of their own stadium 160 miles away back in Rotherham, ‘New York, New York’.

That evening there would be a club party in a London hotel so good that the players who had earned promotion to the Championship gave up their ideas of experiencing London’s nightlife and stayed right where they were.

Yet the Millers chairman is delighted he doesn’t have to experience that epic May 25 occasion again.

“The play-off final was tremendous,” he recalled. “But it left us only a very short space of time to prepare for the Championship.”

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One Year On: All the pictures and stories and how The Star reported Rotherham’s historic day at Wembley

Because of their end-of-season knockout commitments, Rotherham were three weeks behind their rivals as they prepared for their first campaign in the second tier for almost a decade after back-to-back promotions.

And that was a disadvantage an outfit with one of the smallest budgets in the division could ill afford against clubs with Premier League pedigrees and protected by millions of pounds in parachute payments.

The League One Play-off Final is won

The League One Play-off Final is won

“It was a learning curve for the manager, it was a learning curve for all of us,” Stewart said. “You look back and the early mistake was getting too many players in. I think the manager has made comments on that.

“We work as a team. We all work together. We thought that we ought to be trying to get the people in - I think it was more or less trying to get a quick fix rather than a long fix. We’ve learned from that.”

Let it be said for the record that boss Steve Evans and co learned quickly.

With recruitment becoming ever more astute - Tom Lawrence, Emmanuel Ledesma, Daniel Lafferty, Jack Hunt, Danny Ward and Emi Martinez complementing summer signings that did work out like Richie Smallwood, Matt Derbyshire and Paul Green - survival was thrillingly sealed with five points to spare despite a three-point deduction imposed by the Football League.

Craig Morgan

Craig Morgan

Much has changed since the glorious Wembley afternoon when the description of Revell’s amazing, dipping half-volley that brought the score back to 2-2 went down in commentating history and would become the slogan on thousands of T-shirts. I promise not to mention the words, ‘ambitious’ and ‘brilliant’ in this article again.

After last week’s departure of Craig Morgan and Ben Pringle, of the team that started at the home of English football only Collin, Smallwood, Kari Arnason and Lee Frecklington are still with the club.

The memories, however, stick around.

Revell has gone, but the soundtrack to his ambitious, brilliant goal - sorry, I didn’t last long, did I? - is still the ringtone on my phone.

Yes, he’s gone, but the corner flag he almost sent into orbit as he ran deliriously to celebrate with family and fans is probably still thrashing madly from side to side.

Evans remains, his pulse still not quite back to normal after his crazy dash down the touchline when Revs produced his heroics - caught on camera, immortalised on YouTube and now arguably the most famous run in English sporting history since Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile.

Ben Pringle

Ben Pringle

Physio Denis Circuit has shuffled into retirement, his 66-year-old body probably still feeling the effects of the after-match ‘bumps’ given to him by the players as thousands of beaming fans applauded.

And, all the while, the red-and-white version of ‘New York, New York’ rings out.

The Millers side that finished the Championship campaign earlier this month on a four-match unbeaten run was far superior to the one that earned the club the right to play at this level 365 days ago.

Evans has talked about them being a “midtable team looking up” next season and, Stewart, echoing the man he talks to daily, believes, with the right recruitment, they will “be looking up, not down”.

The club made good offers to Morgan and Pringle and are disappointed to lose two stalwarts of their double promotion and Championship survival.

But the summer recruitment mission has now begun in earnest and Evans is already meeting with targets as he looks to make “six or seven” quality additions.

Morgan was a leader for Rotherham and his influence in the dressing room and on the pitch, where he is a very solid citizen at centre-half, will be hard to replace.

The captain is a serious hombre, straight-talking, with a strong, physical presence and an air of authority belying his 29 years. He isn’t someone to be taken lightly and is manager material of the future.

He used to walk into training with Lawrence and Reece James when the Premier League youngsters were here on loan, looking for all the world like a dad bringing in his two sons for a look round the Millers’ inner sanctum as a treat.

His likely destination is Bolton, a club closer to where he lives and able to offer the kind of salary very attractive to a player knowing he is signing probably the last big contract of his career

Evans unleashed the potential of Pringle who had been ignored by previous boss Andy Scott and the left midfielder did well in League Two before excelling in League One to such an extent he made the Team of the Year.

He had memorable matches too in the Championship, where his vision and crossing remained as good as ever but his lack of zip and physicality was sometimes exposed.

Outside of the Premier League, there isn’t a player who delivers a ball better. One cross on the run from the left in the 1-1 draw at Brighton was as good as anything I’ve seen at any level, curling, hanging in the air, then dipping as if laser-guided on to the head of Jordan Bowery.

Bowery held his head in hands, unable to believe two things: how he’d managed to put his header wide and why there was a perfect imprint of the word, ‘Mitre’, on his forehead, so devastatingly accurate had the supply been.

The 25-year-old - another player who tells it exactly as he sees it - takes his summer holidays vey seriously and is criss-crossing the globe like a strawberry-blond Michael Palin before his destination next season becomes known.

He’s not short of Championship admirers. Fulham are keen, Brentford launched an unsuccessful move for him during Mark Warburton’s tenure and Ipswich Town have been mentioned. Millwall, before their relegation, bid for him in January.

Manager of League One Sheffield United Nigel Clough likes what he sees, and Wigan Athletic, another side to drop out of the second tier, have also been linked with him.

The Millers have wished the pair well and now move on, better prepared and in a stronger position than they were after this fateful day 12 months ago.

“It’s been a whirlwind experience and I think we can adapt as we look to next season,” Stewart said.

“If we did look in awe at the bigger clubs like the Wolves and Norwichs of this world, I think this time we will get down to football. We know what we’re up against.”

He stood by his office window at ASD Lighting and summed up how he and his club were feeling as he looked across town towards the unmistakeable silhouette of New York. Ah, ‘New York, New York’ ... I can still hear it now.

“We’re confident. But not cocky.”

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Millers chairman Tony Stewart with The Star's Paul Davis

Millers chairman Tony Stewart with The Star's Paul Davis