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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 08/02/03
Rotherham United
Cup Final
By Ian Grant

You have to laugh. Or cry. Or something.

The recent events at Elland Road have baffled, angered, and amused in almost equal measure. Rarely has coverage of the Premiership been more hysterical, nor so thoroughly ignorant of the wider context. Which is saying something, obviously.

You could be forgiven for thinking that no worse fate could conceivably befall a football club than to be forced to dismantle a team that's not quite achieved its potential. But the key point - that, despite their over-spending and subsequent financial problems, Leeds have always been in a position where they've been able to cash in playing assets - has gone largely unnoticed. Elsewhere, further down the leagues, the transfer market has collapsed entirely, and plenty of clubs simply don't have that option. Try shifting Ramon Vega and Stephen Hughes in a hurry....

It's hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for the protesting Leeds fans either. True, their role in the whole fiasco is no different from that of Watford fans - neither had too much to say when the money was being spent, both have had plenty of wisdom to offer after the event. And while there ought to have been more level-headed and prudent intervention from the boardroom in both cases, supporters are very rarely understanding of such interference. Show me a board with tight control over the purse-strings and, more often than not, I'll show you managers, players and fans complaining about "lack of ambition".

In this, the Leeds model follows our own reasonably closely. There are crucial differences, of course. Scale, for a start. The collapse of ITV Digital too, something that probably spared the Watford board from more organised and sustained criticism. And, finally, that Leeds' folly began with an attempt to consolidate an existing position, which is perhaps a little more rational than our grand plan, albeit that the initial gamble rapidly led to more desperate, compulsive risks.

The problem is, however, that many of the protests against Peter Ridsdale seem utterly dim-witted from a distance, a simple out-pouring of directionless and clueless anger. Throughout, the implication has been that a "real" Leeds fan would've kept these players, that a "real" Leeds fan would've fought the PLC...and, of course, that a "real" Leeds fan would've jealously guarded the right to steer the club into spectacular, heroic bankruptcy. Well, hurrah! "LUFC not PLC" read one banner at the weekend, as if, mysteriously, an unlisted club would've been entirely free to rack up billions of pounds of debt without consequence. This, surely, is a case of turkeys chaining themselves to railings to demand the right to vote for Christmas.

Such is life at a self-defined "big club", it seems. Rotherham fans will have experienced a variation on the idiotic theme themselves at the weekend, having followed our lead in losing heavily at Pride Park. "Three-nil in your Cup Final!" shrieked several messages on the Rivals board, with a certain section of the Derby support still, apparently, convinced that the rest of the First Division regards their club as a mighty force and their stadium as a breathtaking feat of engineering. As several Millers fans took pleasure in pointing out, Pride Park might be more of a cause for envy when Derby have actually paid for it.

Rotherham have had a few problems of their own of late. Owner Ken Booth has come under considerable pressure, not least during Ronnie Moore's extremely protracted attempts to add to his squad with a loan signing. Virtually every page of the official site's news archive features half a dozen stories on the subject, each with the manager at one extreme of the optimism/pessimism spectrum.

That pressure has now eased a little with the acquisition of Curtis Woodhouse, borrowed from Birmingham until the end of the season. Plans for a new stand at Millmoor have been greeted with a degree of cynicism but still welcomed, for reasons that ought to be obvious if you've been there. And it also appears that Booth has agreed to greater representation and influence from the club's Supporters Trust, something that hopefully points to a more harmonious future.

On the pitch, results have the entirely random appearance that's the hallmark of First Division mediocrity. Not particularly exciting, perhaps, but still a considerable achievement. There are plenty of clubs with similar histories that'd be extremely happy with mid-table security and an outside chance of a playoff spot. A fair number of more famous names wouldn't turn it down either...and that includes Sheffield Wednesday, whose plight is unlikely to be greeted with much sympathy at Millmoor.

In goal, Mike Pollitt continues to exclude all competition, with Ian Gray as his loyal and bench-bound deputy. Except that Pollitt was controversially dismissed early in the game at Pride Park for handling inside/on the edge of/outside the penalty area, something that contributed in no small part to the defeat. So Gray made his second appearance in two seasons, although it remains to be seen whether the manager will stick with his first choice or warm up his substitute before the start of the suspension.

The back-line is built around former Hibernian defender Martin McIntosh, a touch of sophistication amid Nationwide ruggedness. His arrival has been at the expense of Guy Branston, whose surname suggests a few condiment-related jokes...but, judging by his genuinely frightening website photograph, you wouldn't tell any of them within hearing distance. The uncompromising Chris Swailes is the other part of the central pairing. David Artell is on loan at Shrewsbury, which has probably proved rather more exciting than he'd expected. Former West Brom and Grimsby, erm, star Paul Raven has been training with the team since his departure from Cleethorpes, but has yet to figure.

On the right side, Marvin Bryan sounds like a children's book character. "Marvin Bryan and His Magic Socks", or something. He's recovered from a season dogged by an Achilles injury. The other side is occupied by Paul Hurst, currently enjoying his testimonial season and named "Player of the Year" by the Supporters Club last time around. Rob Scott, who can play as sweeper or on the right, appears to be injured.

Naturally, the midfield will centre around Woodhouse, who made his debut at Derby. One of those Birmingham and Sheffield United players whose name will, I suspect, cause Matt to growl disgustedly, I tend to think that he's probably given us reason to hold a lifelong grudge at some point...but if he has, I've regrettably forgotten it. With hard-working club captain Stewart Talbot out of favour and recently made available for a loan deal, his partner is likely to be Nick Daws, set piece specialist and long throw guru. Or whatever.

There's no shortage of wide players, which indicates an approach that's as effective but perhaps more attractive than Rotherham are generally given credit for. No sign of John Mullin, an attacking midfielder from Burnley, nor of Jose Miranda, a Portuguese left winger who's disappointed since winning a contract with some fine pre-season performances. But Darren Garner has recovered from a broken leg to occupy the left flank, while Chris Sedgwick adds somewhat erratic pace to the right. Andy Monkhouse, a talented left-sider who's yet to find real consistency, has been on the bench, while Danny Hudson has just returned from a three month loan spell at Doncaster.

Up front, Alan Lee caused most problems for us in the fixture at Millmoor. Quick, strong and tall, he's scored thirteen times...and been booked an impressive ten times. The disciplinary problems meant that he was suspended for two games, returning to the bench for the trip to Pride Park and possibly to the starting line-up on Saturday. With twelve goals, Darren Byfield isn't far behind and is built of similarly powerful stuff, while Richie Barker - ten goals - works hard for the cause. Much-travelled Mark Robins, responsible for a penalty miss in the chaotic game at the start of last season, has fallen down the pecking order. Paul Warne puts in the effort, but has yet to be more than a useful squad player.

No great mathematical skill required here. A win puts us right in the thick of things, so soon after it appeared that the campaign was about to fall apart. Suddenly, the rest of the season looks very interesting indeed, and maintaining our impressive home record is, obviously, massively important.

This is nobody's "Cup Final". But it is pretty vital.

Come on.