DOWN the years, Steve Evans has been a regular at the Conference play-off final.
So, when the Rotherham United manager made an appearance at last Sunday’s promotion decider between Cambridge United and Gateshead, few will have been surprised to see him at Wembley.
This year, however, was different for the Scot. Just three days before Richard Money’s U’s, conquerors of FC Halifax Town in the semi-finals, clinched a Football League return by defeating the North East side, Evans’s Rotherham had booked their own trip to the national stadium by beating Preston North End over two legs.
It meant, as Evans took in the showpiece occasion for non-League football, he was determined to soak up as much as he could.
“I go every year,” said the 51-year-old Glaswegian, who is this year enjoying his first taste of the play-offs despite having won three promotions in a managerial career that began in the Nineties.
“I love them. It was second versus third in the Conference final and the best team got promoted. Gateshead had a great season under Gary (Mills) but Cambridge were the stronger team.
“I was always going to go to Wembley but it was still nice to familiarise myself and I thought that if we were going to be there a week later, I could see what it was all about.
“I saw the elation of Cambridge and the utter dejection of Gateshead. It really did demonstrate to me the difference between winning and losing.”
Rotherham, of course, are desperate to savour the jubilation that comes with the ‘sexy’ way of winning promotion. It will not, though, be easy with the Millers and Leyton Orient being so well matched that they finished level on 86 points and also boasted one victory apiece from the two meetings in the regular season.
Picking a winner, therefore, is not easy, even if Evans, as has been his wont on several occasions this term, has proclaimed his side to be the underdogs.
“I would say Orient are favourites because they led the division for seven months of the season,” said the Millers chief. “Many thought they wouldn’t be touched, including Russell (Slade, Orient manager).
“But I do accept that many round this league would say Sunday could go either way. Both teams will attack and try to win the game and it will come down to fine margins.”
Evans, as even his fiercest defenders will surely agree, is not everyone’s cup of tea. A confrontational touchline manner has seen to that.
Not that this seems to faze the Scot, who when asked this week about why he is unlikely to win any popularity contests in football replied: “I don’t think too many people liked Sir Alex (Ferguson) until he got a Knighthood. Then they had to.”
But what cannot be dismissed amid all the hostility and carping from opposition fans and managers alike is that Evans is successful.
Should Rotherham finish the job tomorrow and beat Orient, it will effectively be his fourth promotion in a row. It began with Crawley Town romping to the Conference title in 2011.
The Sussex club went up from League Two at the first attempt a year later, by which time Evans had been tempted north to Rotherham.
But with his arrival at the Don Valley Stadium, then the Millers’ home, coming with less than a month of the 2011-12 season remaining, surely no-one can argue that the success was not down to him.
Runners-up spot in League Two followed last season with Rotherham, leaving Evans on the verge of a first tilt at the Championship.
He said: “The prize – Championship football and the opportunity to manage and coach at that level – is the highest I have competed for in a game.
“Plus, any manager who gets the opportunity to lead his team out at Wembley would be very proud and I am no different.
“As much as we look forward to it, though, we are not going to London for a day out. We are travelling to the capital, where it will almost be a home game for Leyton Orient, to win a football match. We will be taking on a top class side. (O’s chairman) Barry Hearn and Russell Slade seem to have a Steve Evans-Tony Stewart relationship.
“Over five or six years, Russell has put an excellent team together. He has taken his time but they have got there.
“Everyone I have spoken to with experience of the play-offs will tell you they are all about winning. It is clear no one has time to spend with a team that loses because they have achieved nothing. The focus is entirely on who wins the match.”
Victory over Orient would secure back-to-back promotions for the Millers, a feat the club last managed around the turn of the Millennium under Ronnie Moore.
“Victory would take this club back into the Championship,” said Evans. “And the person who led Rotherham to their previous back-to-back promotions is an absolute legend in the town.
“Ronnie’s words to me is that football has moved on significantly since it was last achieved to suggest the achievement would be even more.
“But to equal it, never mind improve on it, would be fantastic. It would have to be up there with the best.
“That said, they delivered it. I haven’t delivered it yet. Many would say they did it in harder circumstances, with Millmoor and everything. But I would say there are bigger clubs in League One (now). Bigger finance stands between you and the top.
“Look at Bournemouth; they lost £13m last year in League One to get there. We are not in the same league as that.
“This club has come a long way in a short time. When we got out of League Two, a lot will have fancied us to go back. They didn’t think we would have a chance of leaving by the top end.”