What happened last season?
Rotherham's third season of their current spell in the first division commenced with few aspirations of anything other than avoiding relegation. Many fans were convinced even mere survival was out of reach of the tiny squad. A small group of players, only slightly boosted by the acquisition of former Hammer Scott Minto, and former lower division bench-warmer Julien Baudet, were always going to struggle at this level.
For the first couple of months of the season, Rotherham were simply not good enough. Apart from an impressively passionate and convincing win over West Ham at home in the third game, the early games were depressing. The team leaked goals, culminating in a five nil embarrassment at local rivals Sheffield United and a four-goal hammering by Preston in the subsequent game. We were not helped by the fact that we lost Eire international striker Alan Lee to Cardiff. It was obvious the team needed strengthening, particularly in our increasingly non-combative, flair-free midfield and forward line that now lacked someone to lead the line.
In response, Martin Butler was brought in from Reading to replace Alan Lee. At £150,000 (Alan Lee's fee was somewhere between £850K and £1.2M, depending on various clauses), Butler proved a real snip. In two strike partnerships, first with Darren Byfield and then with Michael Proctor after a swap with Sunderland, he provided the goals that eventually guided us to safety (It's a little known fact that Mick McCarthy now has a hook attached to his right arm after Ronnie Moore snatched the Mackems manager's hand off when the swap deal was proposed.)
To provide the long-craved creativity in midfield, Welsh international Carl Robinson (now at Sunderland) was brought in, in what turned out to be a three-month loan deal. This man really changed our fortunes and without him, Butler and Byfield would not have got the goals they did, and we would have gone down. In those three months, October, November and December, the Millers won a handsome percentage of their games and climbed out of the relegation places, never to return.
This period also included the highlight of the season for many, the League Cup game at Highbury. With ninety minutes on the clock, we were one nil down. Byfield scored with a perfectly placed header in front of the Clock End, where the Millers' massed ranks celebrated wildly. We eventually went out nine-eight on penalties, but we didn't care, it was a great night.
The last couple of months of the season were spent waiting to be mathematically safe without ever really looking to be in too much trouble. The acquisition of Proctor, along with the additions of Robbie Stockdale from 'Boro and Phil Gilchrist from WBA on loan and Jody Morris on a short-term contract, provided the extra bit of quality and steel needed to cross the finishing line. Safety was finally assured in a comfortable three-nil defeat of Burnley at Millmoor with a game to spare. It was close but Ronnie Moore, once again, got the job done.
What's going to happen next season?
A ball has not been kicked in anger but Rotherham already have something of an injury crisis. With a squad of just twenty two professionals, the Millers already have four medium to long term casualties. Martin Butler, Andy Monkhouse and new signing Paul McLaren will all miss the first few weeks of the season, having missed much of pre-season. Long term injury victim Martin McIntosh is unlikely to appear any time before Christmas. The biggest void left by these players is by Butler. We have no other player able to score the numbers of goals that he does. Proctor provides more than he scores and will never be a prolific scorer. The other realistic options are Richie Barker - tries hard but unfortunately not good enough for this level - and Will Hoskins. Hoskins, at seventeen, has all the potential in the world but is probably not quite ready to be given the responsibility of leading a Championship forward line. We need to get a goal-scoring spearhead on loan to get us off to a reasonable start. Our first three games are against teams that you can reasonably assume will be down around the wrong end of the table come May, and are teams we need to get a decent return of points from. Without a new striker, this might prove all too difficult.
Despite the continued paucity of options throughout the squad, Moore has had a fairly successful period of team-building. In addition to the aforementioned McLaren, the manager has also brought in Phil Gilchrist and Robbie Stockdale, the former loanees signing permanent deals. This duo proved to be excellent additions to the defence last season and are fully expected to continue where they left off. Paolo Vernazza, so familiar to Watford fans of course, has also signed. He gives us some of the passing qualities that the team was so painfully devoid of when without the services of Carl Robinson and Jody Morris last season. The general feeling of Watford fans seems to be that Vernazza possesses the quality, it is just a matter of getting him to produce it on a regular basis. If there is one thing that Ronnie Moore is good at, it is recognising a player's talents and bringing them to the fore. Vernazza's move could prove to be very shrewd.
While none of the signings cost anything in terms of transfer fees, the moves do mark a slackening of the wages limit at Millmoor. This has allowed the club to bring in better footballers than has been managed in previous seasons. Therefore, Rotherham start the season with more quality throughout the squad than has been seen at the club certainly since the last period at this level, back in the early 1980s. Moore needs to identify a player to fill the chasm left by the injury of Butler for the first few weeks or to put real pressure on Butler and Proctor permanently, and to add depth in the thread-bare left midfield slot. If he can do this, then I see no reason - injuries and suspensions aside - why Rotherham cannot see a mid-table finish as a realistic aim, avoiding the usual relegation worries. Even without these additions, I still fancy us to remain in this division for at least another season.
Soundbites (from assorted Census correspondents)
"I hate arrogant , bigheads and anybody who thinks they are superior because they support a big club ,especially when they don't live in that club's area."
"I have friends who actually support Watford!"(no shit... me too! - ed)
"I am a dancing hamster and am going to take over the world"
"Although I think The Millers will struggle again this year, i love being proved wrong, and Ronnie continually seems to confound the doubters like me."
"I train synchronised swimming to Goldfish, in the event that one day they might need to do it to survive, for a living!"
"I have some needles of a sea urchin stuck in my toe and I cannot remove them"
"I've got a cracking bruise on my shin"