Rotherham United: Seven games to ensure survival

Jonson Clarke-Harris scores against Leeds
Jonson Clarke-Harris scores against Leeds

Let the games begin.

Seven of them which will decide Rotherham United’s Championship fate.

After eight months and 39 matches of highs and lows, wins to remember and a few days to forget, survival now comes down to what happens in matches at Birmingham City, at home to Brighton, away to Middlesbrough and Fulham, at home to Norwich City and Reading and finally away to Yorkshire rivals Leeds United.

It all kicks off again after the international break on Good Friday when the Millers visit St Andrews before hosting the Seagulls on Easter Monday.

On a potentially pivotal bank-holiday weekend, on the same two days Wigan Athletic - five points behind Steve Evans’ men and occupying the third and final relegation place - travel to Middlesbrough and then entertain Derby County at the DW Stadium.

If all goes well for the Millers, they could be virtually safe by Monday tea-time.

If it all goes wrong, the gap which stood at nine points only 17 days ago could have melted away faster than a chocolate egg in a child’s hands.

Equally, little or nothing could have changed.

I don’t think a Millers press conference - and we have four of them a week sometimes - has gone by since January where “fine margins” haven’t been included in a question by me or another member of the media pack or Evans hasn’t taken it upon himself to mention them anyway.

Cast your mind back to a week last Saturday and the Sheffield Wednesday derby. Yes, I know it hurts, but do it anyway.

At the end of normal time the Millers led their great South Yorkshire rivals 2-1 while as Wigan’s home clash with Bolton Wanderers moved into time added on Malky Mackay’s side were trailing 1-0. That put Rotherham eight points clear of the drop zone.

Eight minutes later the Millers had lost 3-2 and Wigan had drawn. Five points.

Evans also talks of teams needing a little bit of luck, and that is something that has deserted his side since the fabulous 2-0 win at Huddersfield Town on March 7 which saw his side go nine points clear of the bottom three and look almost certain to survive.

“We’re getting absolutely smashed,” he reflected after the Owls defeat. “Every decision is going against us, Maybe it just feels like that.”

Wigan arrived at AESSEAL New York Stadium on March 14 and departed with a 2-1 win, scoring from two free-kicks after striker James McLean’s contender for dive of the season and their goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, pulling off the save of the season late on from Jordan Bowery’s header.

Nobody could have predicted that crazy, unbelieveable end to the Owls derby, the only time I’ve rewritten the intro to a match report required on the final whistle five times in the last 11 minutes. Millers win; Owls draw; Bowery, New York pandemonium, Millers win again; Atdhe Nuhiu’s only chance, it’s a draw; deep, deep into time added on, Kieran Lee, high ho Sheffield Wednesday.

Rotherham didn’t deserve to lose either match. But no doubt every team near the bottom will have hard-luck stories. All that matters now is results.

The international break, after the club have suffered three successive defeats for the first time this season, has come at a perfect time for Rotherham. stalling the momentum of Wigan, who had gained four points on them in eight days, and giving Evans’ troops time to recover physically from an arduous run of matches and mentally from the scars of a derby defeat which went beyond the loss of mere bragging rights.

Skipper Craig Morgan spoke of his desire to play again immediately in a bid to right the Wednesday wrongs, but acknowledged: “The break might do us good, give us time to reflect on what’s happened.

“They never stopped, even when it went to 2-2. They went and went, so a little bit of credit goes to them for that. But we should be seeing out the game at that point and at least getting a draw.

“You can alway look back. You’re always going to say ‘what if this, what if that’. It’s another twist. That’s happened. There are six points to play for Easter weekend. It’s a massive weekend.

“We’ll hurt for a couple of days, then we’ll let it go and build towards that weekend.”

Evans, who believes his side need two more wins to be a second-tier outfit again next season, has known for a while his squad were in need of a touch of R&R.

“We said a few weeks ago we were looking forward to it just so we could get some people freshened up and get ready for the last part of the season,” he revealed.

“It would have been a big return of points against Sheffield Wednesday if we had gone on and got the win. I always felt that if we got the three points we would need three more. We still need to win some games, don’t we.”

On Friday, the Millers, refreshed and still believing in themselves, go again.

There is no doubt at all that their A-game - when they’re at their swashbuckling, high-tempo, pressing best - is more than good enough for this division.

They destroyed Bolton, wrecked Leeds in the second half, stunned Derby for more than an hour in a 3-3 draw, didn’t give Huddersfield a sniff and turned over Ipswich to such a degree that Town’s respected manager, Mick McCarthy, scoffed at the idea of them slipping back into League One.

“Staying up. 100 per cent. They’re too strong,” was his verdict after his side had been sent packing 2-0.

Against that, the Millers’ defensive record - which was something to admire until February - has been undone in the last two months by individual errors to the extent that their minus-20 goal difference is the worst of any club still with safety concerns other than bottom two Millwall and Blackpool.

Basement side Blackpool, 18 points away from safety, could be relegated this weekend. How Rotherham must rue the four points dropped against them this season after they led the Seasiders in both matches 1-0 with just minutes to go.

Evans, more prudent now in his recruitment than he was when the Millers’ Championship adventure, after back-to-back promotions, was about to begin, let last Thursday’s loan window deadline pass without adding to his roster.

But he’d taken steps to shore up his backline a week earlier by bringing in Arsenal goalkeeper Emi Martinez until the end of the season.

Regular keeper Adam Collins has produced heroics at times in a Millers shirt but his form had dipped, and Martinez’s Premier League command of his area, distribution and shot-stopping against Wednesday, despite conceding three times, were a reason for optimism now that every point earned or goal conceded matter more than ever.

Some supporters, many supporters, understandably, are nervous. No-one needs to tell Evans and his players that huge chances came and went against the Latics and the Owls to make the run-in an altogether calmer affair.

But, as we fasten all fasten our seatbelts and brace ourselves for the rest of a potentially nerve-wracking ride, here’s a question for Millers fans to consider.

Would you rather be in Rotherham’s shoes right now or Wigan’s?