South Yorkshire derby: Warnock the Owls villain and Millers messiah
Like a pantomime villain, he stage-managed his arrival at the stadium where he loves to feel hated.
Neil Warnock, the man Sheffield Wednesday supporters loudly detest but perhaps quietly admire, let his players jump off the coach and make their way towards the famous old ground.
Then he disembarked last, basking in the hostility that greeted him from a couple of hundred Owls fans who weren’t slow to let him know what they thought of a boss who used to manage Sheffield United.
As Warnock, now employed by Rotherham United to pull off a Championship escape act, signed autographs and joked with youngsters close to the river at the back of Hillsborough’s South Stand, older, harder voices further back sang “Die die, piggy piggy, die”.
Warnock may be a Red of a different kind now, but the mob were still turning the air blue. Other, unprintable, insults ensued, followed by chants of “The city is ours, the city is ours”.
The 67-year-old would have been disappointed if the welcome had been warmer. Surely he couldn’t help ‘little’ Rotherham get one over Carlos Carvalhal’s promotion-chasing team, could he?
Oh yes he could.
The big shout before kick-off was for a comfortable Wednesday win, the Owls’ superb home form, superior squad and a touch of big-club smugness behind that forecast.
One or two Rotherham followers bravely predicted their side might scrap and fight their way to an unlikely away victory, an opinion borne out of the Millers’ amazing record in S6 and pure, blind hope.
Not since September 8 1981 have Wednesday tasted victory on home soil against their small-town rivals. To put that in context, the first ever episode of that classic old sit com, Only Fools and Horses, aired on the same Tuesday night.
At pitchside around 3pm, there was little to report as Warnock popped out of the tunnel and into the dugout, the short walk between the two giving no time for opprobrium to rise, but his players set about delivering a two-fingered salute on his behalf anyway.
The first half was Rotherham’s and they deservedly led through Matt Derbyshire, a frontman deployed on the left wing to make room for Danny Ward’s lone-striker heroics, lurking at the back stick in the 21st-minute to convert Lee Frecklington’s cross in front of the kop.
It could have been 3-0 to the visitors, for whom Ward never stopped running and threatening, at half-time. Equally, it might have been 1-1.
Wednesday scored in the 35th minute when Aiden McGeady’s shot was deflected in by Michael Turner but, after protests from Millers players and being told by man in the middle Christopher Kavanagh that Turner had touched the ball, the assistant referee finally raised his flag and delivered an offside verdict.
TV replays later showed Turner was onside. As Del Boy might once have said and all Owls fans now think: “Linesman, you plonker.”
The home following played their part, turning out in force to produce a crowd of 28,912. The away fans, unhappy at high ticket prices and confined to the top tier of the Leppings Lane end, were disappointing in number but not in anything else. With more to sing about, 2,000 of them out-sang Wednesday and, just after after the goal, they were bouncing; literally bouncing.
Second half, with Lucas Joao on for McGeady, all-out Wednesday attack, all-out Rotherham resistance. Something had to give. Only it didn’t. The Millers were truly magnificent in defence of their 1-0 advantage.
Warnock had his tactics spot on, sitting Greg Halford in front of his centre-halves and denying Barry Bannan, one of the stand-out players in the second tier this season, the space in which to run into and work his magic.
The rest was down to heart, spirit, commitment and a sheer, bloody-minded refusal to yield. Take a bow Mssrs Camp, Richardson, Wood, Broadfoot and Mattock. And, of course, Derbyshire, a centre-forward all his career, popping up at left-back to shepherd out the ball for a goal-kick.
The ref, deemed as guilty as his assistant over that first-half incident, was abused for every decision the home crowd didn’t like thereafter, thus creating a little pocket of S6 history... the only time Warnock has ever set foot in Hillsborough and someone else has been more unpopular.
This wasn’t Wednesday’s day, yet their top-flight credentials are genuine. From the immaculate welcome handed down by a uber-polite doorman and the sheer scale of the place to the huge fan base, tradition and weight of expectation, Hillsborough feels like a Premier League set-up.
But it’s four games now without a win, and head coach Carvalhal must ensure his side, still occupying a play-off place, contain a late-season blip before it spirals into anything more serious.
For third-bottom Rotherham, it’s two wins in their last two matches, six unbeaten at Hillsborough, and the survival miracle might even be on.
Derbyshire, after stealing in at the back post, also twice stole the Owls’ own word to describe the elation in the Millers camp.
“It’s great to win back to back games. To come away from home for a massive derby game and go home with all three points is amazing,” he said.
“It’s a massive confidence-booster for everyone. The last game, against Brentford, was as well. It’s nice to get that winning feeling back. You go into the dressing room and it’s brilliant.”
Rotherham even had the best chance in the second half, as substitute Leon Best broke clear in time added on and fed Richie Smallwood who had only the goalkeeper to beat. Smallwood, so far forward he was maybe distracted by a nosebleed, attempted a chip which showed that as a taker of chances he’s a cracking defensive midfielder.
Meanwhile, Warnock, the devil by the Don before the game, was happy to contemplate water of a different kind at the after-match press conference.
“Are you the Messiah?” he was asked. Grinning, he replied: “I don’t know. I am going to try to have a walk across my pond, but I am not sure.
“I have to get to the island in the middle. If I have to use my boat, I will tell you on Monday.
“I got off the bus and it was a bit of fun. I love it. Rather than a hatred, I think it’s a hatred-respect, if there’s anything like that. But I am a Blade. You’re not going to get a bouquet of flowers here.”
Anxious to be heading home to Cornwall, he broke up Derbyshire’s chat with the media so he could crack on with his own comments.
Then, as his squad left on the team bus, he departed in his BMW with his driver. Different transport for players and boss, the same shared, unspoken feeling.
“The city is ours, the city is ours”.