Blackett and Titans delighted to be back in front of beloved ‘shed’

Lee Blackett will have an extra spring in his step when he walks through the gates at Clifton Lane this morning.

Clifton Lane.

A surge of adrenaline will be noticable as he looks across the field and then turns towards the clubhouse and walks into his office.

It is the same routine as he goes through every day, only this day will be different.

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For today represents the grand homecoming of his Rotherham Titans, almost six months to the day since they last executed a move in anger at their spiritual home.

A combination of a ground-share they hold with the town’s cricket club, an extended run in the play-offs and a long summer to reflect and to scheme have contributed to the Titans’ enforced absence from their home field.

Twelve matches have been played since their last game at Clifton Lane against Plymouth Albion on March 22; six regular-season games across two campaigns, two legs of a play-off semi-final, a British and Irish Cup quarter-final and three friendlies.

All but two of those were played away from home. The ones that should have been played at Clifton Lane were moved to Sheffield’s Abbeydale Stadium in April and May because a long-standing agreement decrees that from mid-April onwards, only cricket can be played on the exposed playing fields on the tops of Rotherham.

Those two games, certainly the latter against Bristol, just happened to be among the biggest in the club’s history.

They lost both.

Had the games been played at Clifton Lane... who knows?

It is fanciful to say Rotherham might be in the Premiership now but it is hard to argue against the effect Clifton Lane – with its spindly floodlights, creaking ‘shed’ stand and unseemly clubhouse conservatory – has on this team, this town, and bigger opponents.

“It’s unique, it’s a ground that defines Rotherham,” says Blackett, whose playing and coaching careers have begun at his hometown club.

“Everyone involved in the club is rightly proud of this ground and appreciates the effort that goes into getting it right on a match-day.

“When I arrive at 8am on a match-day, I’m always amazed by how many people are already here; stewards, employees etcetera, getting the place ready for kick-off. And even then, some six, seven hours before kick-off, you can feel the atmosphere building.

“There’s such a great club spirit about the place and we’re excited about being back home.

“It seems a long time ago since we were last here for a proper contest. If you count the friendlies it’s 11 games.

“So it’s great for us as a team that we’re back and particularly for the fans, they’ll be eager and well up for this.

“You don’t have to check the record books to see how successful this club has been at home down the years.

“And you can put that down to the crowd being on top of the pitch. When the team’s in trouble they pull us through.

“The boys can’t wait to run out in front of that famous ‘shed’ on Saturday.”

Blackett is carving out a smart reputation for himself in coaching circles, despite only being a season and a few games into his journey.

It is not so long ago that Blackett was playing, less than 18 months in fact since his last game in a Rotherham shirt, and only three years to the month since his final game at Clifton Lane as a visiting player.

So does the club’s head coach believe there is a fear factor among opposing players?

“I’m possibly the wrong person to ask as I was always excited about coming back to play at Rotherham because it was the club where I started, so it was always the fixture I looked for first,” says a back who made 114 appearances for Leeds Carnegie.

“But I know that some of the younger players when I was up at Leeds didn’t like coming here.

“And that is something that helps us, that we can use to our advantage, the fact that opposing players don’t like Clifton Lane.”

That intimidating aspect was missing when the season came to the crunch last season.

Whether they have to decamp again should they finish in the top four is in the backs of the minds of the decision-makers at Rotherham, who know they face a harsh truth about their beloved ground, that if they want to pursue another crack at the Premiership, then their future lies elsewhere.

For now, Blackett is concerning himself only with the next game, which by a quirk of the fixtures, is a reunion with Plymouth Albion at Clifton Lane, six months after they last enjoyed ‘home’ advantage.