THE promotion journey is rarely a smooth ride – with a few bumps in the road expected along the way.
Just ask Steve Evans and, for that matter, the man who last took Rotherham United up in 2000-01, Ronnie Moore.
Current Millers chief Evans and his team have already taken a few hay-makers on the chin, with last weekend’s 5-0 humiliation at Dagenham and Redbridge a grievous and unexpected blow following a five-match unbeaten streak which had yielded four wins.
The 6-2 thrashing by a Port Vale side inside by former Rotherham striker Tom Pope in early September also left the Millers similarly stunned.
As a useful exercise in perspective, Millers fans with long memories may recall the time just over a decade ago when Moore’s troops, chasing back-to-back promotions and a return to the second tier for the first time since 1983, got over the line despite veering off course on several occasions.
A 6-1 hammering at Cambridge United early on in the 2000-01 season was followed by subsequent 4-1 and 4-0 defeats at Notts County and Millwall, respectively. But the ultimate prize was won.
While Evans’s crop may have been on the canvas twice already this term, it is different from being out for the count.
Bridling at any talk of crisis in his inimitable way, Evans, seeking a reaction from his ninth-placed side against third-placed visitors Cheltenham Town today, said: “I have heard the Bradford City people saying we are in a crisis.
“We are having an indifferent start; they have had a great start. But if we win our game in hand, we are level with them – work it out for yourself. The crisis is we are not top of the league because that is what comes with expectation.
“As Crawley manager, I remember losing by six at Morecambe; three at Cheltenham and three at home to Swindon last season and everyone was saying: ‘There you go, the bubble has burst’ (the team still went up).
“We need to be entrenched in the top six as we go into January and then there’s 17, 18 or 19 games to go and we will be ready.
“I have said to the chairman that I would except a five-nil defeat in December if we win four or five games in between. Because if you have that average and run ratio, you will be in League One and having a glass of champagne.
“If we win our game in hand, we go level with the team in fourth, while we play the team in third on Saturday. We have been absolutely decimated by injury; I do not think any person inside Rotherham United or outside would disagree.
“I have always maintained we need to be in the pack in January. If we are, we will be in League One next year.”
The one thing Evans is concerned about is the Millers’ injury situation, with the Scot admitting it is the worst he and assistant Paul Raynor have known during their managerial careers.
It has got so bad that goalkeeping coach Andy Dibble has even added to the casualty count, which just about sums things up for Evans, whose big miss is undeniably Kari Arnason.
Some revealing statistics show that with the classy Icelander in their side, the Millers have lost just once in 10 league matches. Tellingly, without him, they have been beaten four times in six matches, winning just once.
Other key men such as regular No 1 Scott Shearer and winger Lionel Ainsworth are also crocked. Evans, while acknowledging the grave injury situation, says the ones who are currently in possession of the first-team jerseys have no excuses.
Evans continued: “Surely we cannot keep having the same luck we are having with injuries now. It is unprecedented.
“We have got a goalkeeping coach who is having a cartilage operation after doing his cartilage on the training ground. You look at things like that and think: ‘Where will it stop?’ But it will.
“There was no excuse for last Saturday and we were all guilty – from the management team to the squad. We win and lose together.
“If you feel sorry for yourself, you can buckle. It is about staying strong, getting your upper lip up and fighting.
“I have seen the reaction from the players on the training ground. But, as I tell them, we do not want lip-service and them coming to tell me they are sorry and let themselves and the team down. They produced the performances.
“Sometimes, players talk the talk. The ones who are silent are often hurting the more. We have always said to the players here that actions and performances speak louder than words.”
Actions will certainly have to this afternoon against last season’s beaten play-off finalists Cheltenham, managed by former Doncaster Rovers midfielder Mark Yates, with Evans tipping them to be in the shake-up at the end of the season.
He added: “Cheltenham has an excellent squad. I think they would have gone into automatic promotion with Crawley and Swindon – I think Shrewsbury would have missed out – last season but they had a period in February or March where they lost seven out of eight games.
“If I was going into the game full strength, I would not be giving too many second thoughts over what the outcome would be. But we are having to get more from less.”