Once again, the Championship beckons Rotherham United.
While the yo-yo club still have work to do to rubber-stamp a third consecutive instant return, the seven-point buffer to third-placed MK Dons, with eight to play, looks significant.
If PPG returns, then 88 points will suffice for a top two berth, meaning Paul Warne’s side would be projected to go up automatically if they drew each of their remaining games.
The task of matching or bettering the tally required seems something approaching a formality, but Warne would not be doing his job if he did not bat away this kind of talk.
He will insist that there will be plenty of twists and turns between now and season’s end, that getting the job done on the pitch is much harder than it looks on paper and that there is no room for complacency, especially after one win in four.
We at The Sportsman, though, are not tasked with keeping Rotherham on an even keel for the run-in, so this piece will explore their theoretical chances at Championship level, rather than what’s immediately in front of them.
The past: a burden or a motive?
Rotherham so often struggle in the second tier.
The South Yorkshire club stayed up with 46 points in 2014-15 due to the various issues at Blackpool, Wigan and Millwall, then were saved by three months of form under Neil Warnock the following season.
Otherwise, the Millers have not stayed up for multiple second tier seasons since the Ronnie Moore era, when Mike Pollitt and Alan Lee were worshipped at Millmoor in the early-mid 2000s and two lower mid table finishes were achieved amid four campaigns at that level.
The task for Warne - a midfield stalwart back in those days - is to try to build a team that can emulate the feats of Moore and company, but it’s an arduous one.
The financial climate of the Premier League is having a ripple effect on Championship wages, so while Tony Stewart is a dedicated owner who has backed the club and cares about it, Rotherham are always at a disadvantage.
The success of Blackpool, Luton, Coventry and Barnsley – albeit for one 2020-21 campaign in the latter case – gives the club some hope that it is possible to compete on a budget with the right model, but far from easy.
So, are Rotherham making progress towards their ultimate ambition under Warne’s guidance?
The side he inherited, after Alan Stubbs’ poor management and Kenny Jackett’s U-Turn, was one of the worst second-tier sides of all time.
The effort at survival in 2018-19 was far more gallant, as the S60 club caused problems with their direct, physical and aggressive style, but fell short on individual errors and misplaced shots.
2020-21, meanwhile, was the closest attempt yet, with Rotherham being relegated only on the final day and with a significant mitigating factor, beyond the injuries to wide man Chiedozie Ogbene.
After a crucial 2-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday in early March, the Millers were hit by a COVID crisis that forced them to play just two more games that month, prompting a backlog of 12 games in 37 days, from which the team took only seven points.
The obvious argument, therefore, would be that without the COVID crisis, Rotherham would have beaten the drop – and that may be true.
Equally, a modest 44 points would have sufficed for survival and Derby managed to stay up despite losing seven on the spin prior to the final day 3-3 draw with Sheffield Wednesday, so it may be a touch one-sided to say that external factors only went against the Millers.
Nonetheless, Rotherham’s 2020-21 crop had a better group of players than the class of 2018-19 and performances like the 3-0 win at Middlesbrough, as well as the doubles over Derby, Bristol City and PNE show they are becoming a more dangerous proposition at this level.
Can Warne adapt?
If Rotherham retain Dan Barlaser, Oli Rathbone and Ben Wiles, they will have a midfield trio to hold its own at Championship level.
Although the Millers have a reputation for being direct, they have shown this season that they can mix up their game and playmaker Barlaser has been key to their best moves on the deck, whilst digging in to adapt to a style that may not exactly be tailor-made for him.
Rathbone, meanwhile, is a relentlessly energetic presser who will help the team retain their intensity and force opponents back, with the former Rochdale man essentially doing what Jamie Lindsay did last season but higher up the pitch.
Wiles has elements of the strengths of both Barlaser and Rathbone, being technically proficient whilst contributing to the press, as well as being a strong ball-carrier – having built his upper-body strength this season – with agility in tight areas.
It’s essential, therefore, that Rotherham have a formation in the Championship that incorporates each of those players in central midfield, as opposed to deploying Rathbone as a second striker or shunting Wiles out wide.
The other player to factor in, though, is Ogbene, a quick, athletic right-sider who is best served isolating opponents one-on-one on the flank, which he tends to do this season as a wing-back.
That same role for Ogbene at Championship level might be risky, as the former Brentford youngster wants to stay high up the pitch, so having a quick right centre-back would be essential, if Rarmani Edmonds-Green stays at Huddersfield.
Warne may be able to keep the same blueprint by replacing Edmonds-Green with Accrington Stanley’s Ross Sykes: 6’5”, strong in both boxes, speedy for his height and, honest as they come, would fit into the culture superbly.
Elsewhere, a left wing-back stronger going forward than Shane Ferguson but more defensively astute than Mickel Miller could also pay dividends, with neither of the current options likely to quite make the grade in the division above.
While it would be brave to stick with wing-backs for the anticipated step up, that bravery may be rewarded, because even if the wide men get forced back, Rotherham would still have two outlets up top to release when vulnerable.
If the Millers can tie up a deal for Michael Smith, which would be achievable if promotion is secured, then ‘Smudga’ would be a useful aerial reference point as well as someone who can run the channels.
The partner for Smith, meanwhile – whether that’s Freddie Ladapo, Josh Kayode or a summer recruit – could stretch defences by running in behind.
When Smith is the lone front-man at Championship level, he can get isolated for the periods of games in which Rotherham are not peppering the opposition: and it’s unrealistic to expect to do that for more than a third of the game combined.
With two strikers, it would not matter so much if the quality of opposition forces the other eight outfielders into a deep block because they could always counter-attack.
Although Warne might be tempted to change tack for the step up, it may be that the most pragmatic formation option for Rotherham is the one for continuity.
Can they do it?
Going into the Championship, if confirmed, what Rotherham would have in their favour is stability in the dugout, a close-knit group with a healthy working culture and, if Smith and other key players remain, their best squad for nearly two decades.
Warne, though, must prove that he can match most tacticians at that level – as opposed to relying on his ability to motivate and galvanise his players – and of course the Millers would have a bottom three budget by some distance.
The South Yorkshire club are, unquestionably, in a far healthier position now than they were five years ago because of Warne’s work, with the boyhood Norwich fan transforming the culture at the New York Stadium – but there have been three relegations under his watch as well as the two (three to be?) promotions.
If the expected happens between now and April’s end, 2022-23 will decide whether Warne can be Rotherham’s modern Ronnie Moore, or the one who simply laid vital foundations for better things.
*18+ | BeGableAware | Odds Subject To Change