Twenty minutes in to Rotherham United’s first game in the Championship, Steve Evans looked up to the heavens and wondered what he had let himself and his club in for.
Steve McClaren’s Derby County had spent the opening quarter camped in Rotherham’s half.
The beaten Championship play-off finalists were giving the League One play-off winners a lesson on the speed and movement of life in the second tier, and Evans’s Millers were chasing shadows.
Six months on and that game provides a snapshot into Rotherham’s season; awe-struck at first before finally getting to grips with the challenge and rising to the task. That Derby went and grabbed a late winner emphasises just how cruel this season has been at times for a South Yorkshire club that less than two years ago was in the basement division.
But as they prepare to welcome McClaren’s Derby to the New York Stadium tonight – with Rotherham fighting for every point as they hover above the drop zone and County beating a path towards the Premier League – Evans appreciates just how far his team have come.
“I can remember the opening 20 minutes at Derby, we couldn’t get out of our 18-yard box,” recalled Evans.
“I turned to the fourth official hoping 30 minutes had gone but he said no, just 10.
“I remember looking up and thinking ‘welcome to the Championship’. But once it settled down we were the better team in the second half.
“The Championship is a marathon, you cannot get hung up on the defeats, you can’t allow it to affect you. You have to bounce back, you have to get back on the traning ground and work towards the next one, because if you get hung up on defeats you’ll suffer.”
Rotherham have done their fair share of bouncing, and as of mid-February, there is plenty of air left in their survival bid due to a recent habit of upsetting form teams.
Bolton and Ipswich have both been beaten on home soil, but the Millers boss knows it will take something special – even from a group of players who repeatedly rise to the occasion – to get the better of McClaren’s classy Rams.
“I think Derby will be in the Premier League at the end of the season,” said Evans.
“But with 16, 17 games left to play, will they win everyone of them? Absolutely no chance, so we have to make sure we’re one of the teams that deny them a win.
“You look at their quality, the players they’ve got on the bench.
“But we’ll try and be in their faces and make it a cup tie.
“We’re not silly, we need things to go in our favour, we need Derby to be a notch down. There just aren’t too many days when they’re a notch down.”
Evans took his players to a mini training camp in the East Midlands late last week, firstly to keep them together during a weekend of inactivity, and secondly to allow him close proximity to the iPro Stadium, where he watched Derby on Saturday.
Rotherham’s three-point advantage on the bottom three remained intact over the weekend courtesy of Millwall’s defeat at Leeds. But while Whites fans might be harbouring fans ambitions of the top six, Evans believes that with 38 points to their name, Leeds and anyone below them might still be sucked into what is an ever-changing dogfight.
“It goes all the way up to inside the top half that’s involved in this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone on 38 points or below is not part of the battle.
“I also don’t think Blackpool are sunk, they’re showing their fighting spirit under Lee Clark.
“And when you look at the quality of player Wigan has, they’re far from down. I don’t think anybody’s written off yet.”
To help Rotherham’s cause, Evans hopes for a ‘fair crack of the whip’ from officials.
He has climbed down from the impassioned state at Ewood Park last Tuesday night that saw him launch a withering assessment of certain ‘League officials’ not wanting his team in the division.
“We all say things in the heat of the battle,” he said yesterday, from the more sedate surroundings of Rotherham’s Parkgate training ground.
“Some of the decisions are quite hard to take but there’s some very honest people in refereeing. David Allison, the head of referees, is never frightened to call and he’s been calling me a lot recently to say we got that wrong, we got this wrong.
“You accept it with the integrity it’s meant but sometimes it just gets to you a little bit.
“Some of the decisions smash your head in when you’re a manager, but you have to take them on the chin and we move on.”
Jonson Clarke-Harris has returned to the club from his loan spell at MK Dons, while on-loan Connor Sammon is ineligible tonight against his parent club.
Last six games: Rotherham LLWDWL; Derby WWWWDL.
Referee: N Miller (County Durham).
Last time: Rotherham 2 Derby 1; August 11, 2009; League Cup.