22 May 2014

Play-off final preview: The view from Rotherham

It's somehow fitting that the League One play-off final has ended up as a clash between Leyton Orient and Rotherham United: two unglamorous, unfancied clubs who've defied the odds this season. I asked Millers fan and WAGU blogger Michael Whitehead for his views ahead of Wembley... 

Has Rotherham's performance this season exceeded your expectations?
Absolutely. I knew we had the makings of a good team that would spring a few surprises and should be capable of getting in the top half. We had already brought in players of a high calibre that had played at Championship or League One level such as Kieran Agard, Kari Arnason, Craig Morgan and Lee Frecklington.

So our good start wasn't that surprising, but our long unbeaten run after New Year's Day was beyond most Millers fans' wildest dreams.

What are the secrets of Rotherham's success this season?
It's a bit of a cliche possibly but I think a lot of it is down to good old-fashioned team spirit and the never-say-die attitude. There were many pundits marking us down as relegation candidates, some 'experts' saying we didn't deserve to be in the top six, whilst in some quarters many have been critical of our style of play.

So in many ways, others did the team talk for us and contributed the togetherness in the squad, particularly away from home where we've been hard to break down at the back but further forward we have played with a freedom and work ethic that have put some home teams on the back foot from the off.

I think another big factor is that we ended last season on such a high, winning all five of our last five matches to pip Burton Albion to second place.

Your manager Steve Evans is a divisive character in football - how do Rotherham fans feel about him?
He's on the verge of potentially delivering back-to-back promotions in his two seasons with us so you can imagine we hold him in high regard! We knew his past when he arrived and many fans took some convincing that he was the right man, particularly when he served a stadium ban a month into his first season for his antics against Bradford whilst being manager of Crawley.

But he's been first class whilst in charge of Rotherham. All Millers fans ask of their team and manager is that they give it their all and Evans is as hard-working as they come. He's been very gracious towards fans for giving him a chance and takes time out to visit fans in hospital - so he's not always as psychotic as he appears on match day!

He's always busy travelling to see matches around the country and going abroad looking for new recruits, he keeps fans informed of what's going on and he's now very respectful, sometimes gushing towards our opposition. The only common trait he has brought to Rotherham is his passion and desire to win - nothing wrong with that!

Alex Revell is very familiar to Orient fans - how important is he to your team?
As Orient fans will be aware, Alex Revell gives you everything he's got. He plays like a fan and celebrates like a fan, so he has a lot of admirers for his commitment to the cause. Rotherham fans like their grafters and so does Steve Evans so he's a key part of the spine of this team. 

The only problem is he doesn't score nearly enough goals as he should.  He's excellent at bringing the ball down and playing in some of our attacking players such as Agard, Frecklington and Pringle, but if he's in a one-on-one you wouldn't put your house on him. Although as he showed against Preston in the first leg and against Orient at New York Stadium he can do it from time to time!

What were your opinions of Orient when you played us this season?
I didn't get to the away game at Brisbane Road but I was at New York for the match against Orient in February. I think you had been on a long unbeaten run and had obviously led the way for so long so we knew we had a difficult game in prospect.

I remember you kept the ball very well and had a lot of threat down the wings and up front. Odubajo was very lively and we came under pressure for long periods. I saw a bit of the first leg against Peterborough and you were much the same - very tidy in possession and very hard-working when not with the ball.

When Revell got his injury-time goal I think it was a turning point in the season really as it showed we could mix it with the best in the league and that we had nothing to fear.

You are the bookies' favourites for the final - is that fair?
I wasn't aware we were to be honest. I would prefer it if we wasn't as the underdog tag suits us just fine!  Not sure if it's fair or not - I think a case could be made for either side as we are both quite evenly matched. The table tells you that for nothing!

Is there anything that worries you about the Orient team?
There's a lot of goals in the Orient side - even on the bench. I know I would love Chris Dagnall in our side, very much in the Adam Le Fondre mould, a natural goalscorer which is what we have lacked really since ALF left us for Reading. My main fear is maybe that we might struggle to get the ball off you at times! I would say you have been the best passing team I have seen after Wolves.

Where will the game be won and lost?
This Millers team are at their strongest when Lee Frecklington and Ben Pringle have the space to do damage. The pair are match winners on their own and usually when they play well we win.

It sounds obvious but I think if either team gets an early goal it will be an uphill struggle for the opposition. Both are hard to break down and both can switch up a gear and get more goals if needed.  If its level going towards extra time then maybe Rotherham will have the edge as we like our late goals.

And finally, your prediction for Sunday?
It's going to be tight isn't it?  But its Wembley so anything can happen. This team have proven me wrong on several occasions and so it's tempting to be pessimistic! I'm going 2-2 after 90 minutes, with a goal in extra time to win it for the Millers.

One of my first disappointments as a Rotherham fan was when Orient beat us on penalties in 1999 at Millmoor to dump us out of the Division 3 play-offs. A lot of fans remember that so maybe its time for some sweet revenge!
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