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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 20/11/04, 3.00pm
Rotherham United
A positive spin
By Matt Rowson

We're having a rather curious season.

Whilst there's little denying that we're still exceeding our own fairly limited expectations, an outsider might reasonably look at recent results and question whether it's slipping away a little bit. In fact several outsiders have done so, not least Felix watching on from Singapore via the staccato Watford World. The proliferation of draws is partly to blame, and permits all sorts of contradictory statistics to describe our recent form. Undefeated in nine games, for example. But only one League victory in the last ten.

It doesn't feel disappointing, though, and it certainly doesn't feel like a crisis. At the centre of this is the honest, bloody-minded, trustable performances that the side is putting in. In addition, the nature of the opposition that we've faced... seven games against the nine sides above us in the last two months with only one of those ending in defeat. They've been fine, entertaining games too, by and large, and of the draws in only the home tie with Ipswich and arguably last Saturday's game at Bramall Lane were we not the stronger, more convincing side.

It's not difficult to put a positive spin on the season so far, not difficult at all. But that will be a little harder to maintain should we become the first side to lose a league game to Rotherham United at the weekend.

It will happen, at some point. Rotherham may have reached nineteen league games without recording a victory and may be looking squarely at Division Three already, but they will beat someone sooner or later. There have been signs of life in recent weeks with leads lost at home to Wolves and away to Forest and Derby, and a two goal deficit recovered for a point at home to Cardiff.

The problem, of course, is that when you keep getting punched in the stomach, it gets harder and harder to convince yourself to get to your feet again... and, as we observed so dramatically last week when Southampton visited, when it goes wrong, there's an increased willingness to accept it and roll over, not a characteristic one typically associates with Ronnie Moore's Rotherham sides. Turbulent chaos in the boardroom will not be helping matters either.

Mike Pollitt will be in goal for the Millers - experienced and traditionally dependable, he was apparently culpable for Wolves' equaliser at Millmoor at the weekend, a Kevin Cooper effort from thirty-five yards. Former Coventry reserve Gary Montgomery will be on the bench.

At the back, Chris Swailes returns from a one-match ban at the weekend to partner Martin McIntosh, usually a redoubtable partnership although McIntosh in particular hasn't been in the best of form. This should release Shaun Barker, capable but guilty of panicking and giving away free kicks too often, either into a midfield role or to right back, where Robbie Stockdale hasn't adapted to Division Two terribly well. Paul Hurst should play left back with Scott Minto missing presumed injured; Rob Scott and Phil Gilchrist are both candidates for places on the bench.

The centre of midfield is a real problem area. Since Jody Morris departed in the summer, what creativity there is has been the spasmodic offerings from Paolo Vernazza that frustrated us for his last couple of years at Vicarage Road; however he hasn't started for the Millers since the end of September. The pairing at the weekend was the uninspiring John Mullin with the gritty but limited Paul McLaren, both of whom appeared too ready to retreat in front of their defenders. Darren Garner is out with a calf injury, whilst Nick Daws now concentrates on his fitness coach role - questioned by some, given the Millers' tendency to tire - although his playing registration has been retained.

Right-winger Chris Sedgwick, whose corners are a particular threat with Rotherham's centrebacks always up for set pieces, is probably the jewel in the crown and the vultures have been circling in recent weeks, with Preston the latest to have an offer rejected. More contentious is the left-sided midfield role; Andy Monkhouse is a contender but is returning from injury, other candidates include Paul Warne and striker Michael Proctor.

The return to something approaching fitness of Martin Butler following hepatitis is a big boost for the Millers; he'll probably partner one-footed wonder Junior, on loan from Derby County and making his second visit to the Vic this season having scored for Derby's reserves in September. Proctor and the lumpy Richie Barker are alternatives. Moore has struggled for loan or permanent signings to strengthen his options here, with Coventry pair Dele Adebola and Gary McSheffrey both having been mentioned.

I've focused on not being the first team to lose a league game to the Millers as a priority, but really we need to build off the venom of our last home performance and a rare free midweek to kick off another congested spell of fixtures with a win. Anything less against opposition in this form has to be disappointing. But with the puffin eater back from an enforced ten day rest to torment a nervy defence, you kinda fancy our chances.