It may have been minus ten in August, but things are warming up at Millmoor. Slowly, the South Yorkshire club are adjusting to life without a managerial legend. Is the same true for the visitors? Pete Green investigates
It is a bore to draw parallels between football and love affairs. Too many tiresome blogs talk about the magic having gone, the need to rekindle the spark, and flirtations with other clubs. But if every cliche hides a kernel of truth then maybe this one tells us something about management, because the longer a manager has been in charge, the longer it seems to take the club to get over it once the record collection is divided up.
It’s not just Charlton. When I think of Rotherham I think of my first visit to the town, when a pub brawl was about to break out between two foul-mouthed 70-year-old women being held apart by their families (“Leave it Gran, she’s not worth it!”). Then I think of the Rotherham band I saw about a year ago, whose singer wore a flat cap and counted, in their opening number, “One-Ronnie-Moore, two-Ronnie-Moore, three-Ronnie-Moore, four-Ronnie-Moore”.
Moore oversaw seven seasons here, receiving great acclaim for two straight promotions. When he left in 2005 the script of free-market football had resumed, leaving his team 12 points from safety at the bottom of the second flight – but they still loved him. It was Mick Harford who came next; it could have been anyone. He lasted longer than Iain Dowie at The Valley, but not by a lot.
The ten-point penalty the Football League imposes for entering administration has introduced a new element of technique and timing to the modern game. There’s a story that Rotherham officials hovered over the fax machine during last season’s decisive final match, ready to send the League a copy of their creditors’ arrangement if defeat loomed, to incur thus a meaningless deduction on a total that would already be inadequate to stay up. In the event, their 0-0 draw did football the belated service of relegating the Milton Keynes enterprise instead and the ten points came off in August.
As a result of the deduction, Alan Knill’s side sit 17th before this game but boast the record of a team with credible play-off aspirations. As fans huddle against the gathering winter, the club’s ambiguous future is reflected in an unfinished rebuild. United’s ongoing poverty means tough choices, and the requirement for a competitive squad has outweighed the need to finish putting seats in the new main stand, whose unearthly bare concrete looms before the scrap-metal works owned by former chairman Ken Booth. The mind’s eye sees the ghosts of Millers past filling the space, their silence offset by Millmoor’s biggest crowd this season, feeling the worst is past. Rotherham’s crisis came closer than most to catastrophe and today a hot defiance fills this place. This is a club glad to be alive, all the more alive for the recent intimacy with death.
Fans still swarm to seats as the whistle blows and Nottingham Forest’s players, like their fans, are surprisingly reticent for a side that have won seven on the trot. Rotherham work the flanks well and two early corners keep the home crowd in voice. Ritchie Partridge threatens from the right; Martin Woods looks an unlikely lower-division hero – tanned, toned and boy-band blond – but does a good line in set pieces and works as hard without the ball as with. Delroy Facey glances wide from a Partridge cross, to warm applause. Forest break with surprising pace and Neil Cutler saves superbly from Sammy Clingan’s 20-yard stinger.
Most of the banter between fans is rooted in the miners’ strike and the Yorkshire bitterness that has barely abated in the two decades since the Nottinghamshire men split from the NUM to return to work. “Where were you in ’84?” demand the home supporters, some of whom were yet to be born in ’84. “Scabs! Scabs! Scabs!” Forest’s following respond with that smug, yes-we’ve-heard-that-one ironic applause thing, then break their silence with “Arthur Scargill is a wanker” and “You’ll never work again, sign on, sign on”. Like land subsiding above a pit, Rotherham’s moral high ground crumbles precipitously when their chant varies to “I’d rather be a Paki than a scab”.
Nottingham’s anger has largely been directed towards Forest’s own players in recent times. Furious fans compared sightings of carefree team-mates on the piss in the city centre hours after careless defeats at the City Ground; they are a third division side today because of the same cycle of player complacency that sucked down Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester City before them. Even now there are traces of Premiership body language: Clingan, tackled hard, clutches his leg conspicuously, then stands up and scrams when he doesn’t get the free-kick; and as Forest’s first corner is cleared, your ears strain for the poignant violin passage invited by Junior Agogo’s aggrieved posture. Danny Cullip looks like the right stuff, though. At this level every team needs a large, bald, shouting centre-half with a glare that could strip paint.
Rotherham rack up corners, albeit with little real sense that Facey will improve upon his one league goal this season. His strike partner, Nottingham-born Will Hoskins, is in double figures but figures only fleetingly, though a classy lay-off to Paul Hurst suggests more to come. “The chances that we’ve had though!” laments a Millers fan. “The chances that we’ve fucking had,” agrees his mate.
I join a half-time refreshment queue on the menu’s promise of a cheese and onion pie, knowing full well that – as at every football ground in England – a ten-minute wait will leave me chewing on nothing but disappointment. The man behind me is pleased with the first half. “Forest have shown us a lot of respect, really,” he muses in a pleasantly surprised tone, before glancing back at the half-finished main stand and wondering aloud as to the motives of the octogenarian Booth in retaining the ground after selling the club. I’ve no idea whether this Ken B shares the facial hair of his aged autocratic namesake pitched up in the west of the old county, but I form an image of him as the Anti-Santa, sucking away the presents of weeping South Yorkshire children into the slipstream of his fast-reversing sleigh.
“A cheese and onion pie, please,” I say to the woman behind the counter. They won’t have one. “We’ve not got one,” she replies. “Sorry, love!” The debt paid off by Booth before he stepped down totalled £3 million, I am told, which by a strange coincidence is the same amount I would have spent on cheese and onion pies at various English football grounds down the years had their menus proven accurate.
No longer content to contain, Forest begin the second half with palpably greater urgency, Clingan and Kris Commons screwing down the midfield and forcing the ball menacingly into the tight spaces around Rotherham’s penalty area. Cutler launches briskly off his line to close down Neil Harris. Roused at last, their supporters begin counting the home fans ejected by the police: “We want four… we want five!” If Sepp Blatter is within earshot, he will suggest this next month as a new way to settle games still level after extra time.
The home side responds well to the pressure, though, and on the hour Woods weaves in from the left to lift an irresistible ball to the edge of the area. Hoskins brings it down and fires a glorious, swinging, left-footed shot hard past Paul Smith: the net billows voluptuously and Millmoor is alight. Police dash to the corner of the Railway End and start to even up the expulsion count. “They’ll get kicked out of t’ ground an’ locked up for t’ night!” enthuses a delighted 11-year-old boy. “Scabbies!”
Colin Calderwood responds by tapping his reservoir of spare strikers, Nathan Tyson replacing Harris. Forest press harder, though chances continue to materialise at both ends. The big moment comes ten minutes from time, when Smith parries from Hoskins and Facey fluffs awfully in the face of an open goal. Woods drops back into defence as Calderwood throws on another forward, Grant Holt, and the match switches into fifth gear. At last Agogo gets the ball down to Tyson, ten yards out, who thrashes it past Cutler for the draw.
It’s always something special when a “smaller” club square up ebulliently on their own ground to a “larger” rival. Today’s fixture has picked up some peppery edge from the wider context of Rotherham’s fight for life and Forest’s ongoing frustration at life in the lower leagues – and the result has been a raw and rousing rush of proper football: skilful, compellingly balanced and somehow unusually meaningful in these times of foregone football conclusions and “cream rising to the top”.
Take a long view and maybe Forest, too, are still on the rebound from a manager: Brian Clough, whose teams remain a benchmark for style as much as success. They’ll go back up in the summer; after that the way is less clear, but for now they might do well to live in the moment a bit more, to enjoy such cracking matches as today’s rather than weighing them against blue remembered European Cups or fretting about play-offs.
The home support disperses into Saturday night, while a couple of hundred make for a function room below the stadium, where a superbly tacky disco is already in full swing. With the volume and the dark outside it suddenly feels like midnight – and a lot of fans will be here until then and beyond. “They don’t do real ale, but it’s money for the club,” explains one. With support like this, after a game like today’s, it’s hard not to believe they’ll be all right.
From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month