How Rotherham United secured promotion on a day of drama at Gillingham

To win promotion from League One, you need a bit of everything.

Few leagues are so unequal, from the former Premier League clubs to those who have punched above their weight rising up the pyramid. With Derby County coming from one direction in the summer, Forest Green Rovers from the other, the disparity will be even starker in 2022-23.

Rotherham United are not so big for their boots they think they are entitled to promotion, even though it is all manager Paul Warne has known in the League One seasons of his dizzying yo-yo existence, but they have enough resources for a depth which came to the fore when fourth-choice centre-forward Georgie Kelly put Saturday’s promotion-clinching 2-0 win at Gillingham beyond doubt.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

There is a refreshing work ethic about the Millers, who know if the league was decided just on resources, even natural ability, they would not finish so high. But they are acutely aware it is not.

Dan Barlaser celebrates Rotherham United's promotion with fans (Picture: PA)

“That’s why we signed the people we signed,” explained Warne. “We can’t sign the most talented people but we can sign lads with the right attitude who want to improve. We can sign fit lads who are coachable and that’s what’s got the lads success.”

It is not just the size of the opponents, either, but the way they play that tests teams in different ways. There have been days when Rotherham have shown plenty of the technical ability some overlook, but having wobbled into a vulnerable position after looking all but home and hosed when winter turned to spring, the Millers were more reliant on character, grit and physicality to get over the line in Kent.

Centre-forward Michael Smith played 80 minutes with a foot he broke weeks earlier before handing over to debutant Kelly, and their old-stager centre-back Richard Wood headed away everything that came in his direction. Rotherham deservedly took the lead, weathered a storm, then came again to finish Gillingham off with Kelly thumping a fairytale goal nine minutes into his first Football League match.

The Gills ended the day joining Doncaster Rovers in next season’s League Two because over the course of 46 games they lacked too much. But in their last hurrah there was a dogged determination to defend and a rugged refusal to lie down which made Rotherham’s afternoon more awkward than it ought to have been given the first-half balance of play. The Millers are far from the sort of fancy-dans who would be put off by that, though.

Rotherham United players celebrate promotion with fans after the final whistle of the Sky Bet League One match at the MEMS Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham (Picture: Steven Paston/PA Wire)

With Neil Harris’s side doing all they could to gum up the works, Rotherham went around them, getting the ball in from wide by a variety of means. Gillingham striker Vadaine Oliver ploughing a lone furrow allowed the outside centre-backs, Michael Ihiekwe and Huddersfield Town loanee Rarmani Edmonds-Green, to get forward and onto the end of plenty of those crosses.

It was Ihiekwe who hung in the air at Dan Barlaser’s 34th-minute corner, and Edmonds-Green who tapped it over the line for a lead which was merited, but far from inevitable.

Had Smith put away a fairly routine chance (for a fit striker) from Chiedozie Ogbene’s cross minutes later, maybe the win could have been easy but in keeping with their season as a whole, Rotherham added a bit of jeopardy as things threatened to become straight-forward.

Ben Thompson’s volley onto the underside of the crossbar to end the first half was literally a warning shot and with Priestfield encouraged by relegation rivals Fleetwood Town’s struggles at Bolton Wanderers, the opening 20 minutes of the second half were a real battle. Captain Wood manned the barricades.

Rotherham United manager Paul Warne in the tunnel after promotion was secured (Picture: PA)

“We only need one goal,” the Gillingham fans urged their team.

Only after getting through that sticky spell could Rotherham come again, Ben Wiles forcing a hat-trick of good saves from Aaron Chapman.

Inevitably, there was a reluctance to go for broke. Normally Rotherham’s wing-backs are actually wingers but when Joe Mattock came on in the 67th minute, they were both full-backs. By the 88th minute they were running the ball into the corners.

Kelly took matters into his own hands a minute later, smashing Ogbene’s pull-back into the net at the packed, noisy away end.

“I could have put (Josh) Kayode on (for Smith),” said Warne. “he’s been great for us as well, but I just thought the way we were crossing the ball, Georgie’s really aggressive in the six-yard box - I say that and he scored with his feet.”

Kelly happily shared the praise.

“Cheo made it easy because the weight of the pass meant I had to just hit it,” he said. “A touch would have made things more difficult.

“The roar. Wow! The place erupted.”

Rotherham fans invaded the pitch and threw on flares when Wood had a goal disallowed, after Kelly’s strike, and at full-time, when some met the Gills fans at the halfway line and threw punches, bottles and a steward’s plastic stool. Far from the first incident they have been involved in this season, it delayed the on-pitch celebrations by an hour.

So it was far from perfect and far from pretty. Rotherham will have to spend the summer working out what they must do to finally consolidate in the Championship, persuade key players such as Smith to stay, then turn on the charm and scrape together the money to sign those who can nudge them up a level.

But Saturday was about the job in hand, nothing else.

Rotherham dug deep as so often this season and no one could begrudge them their promotion as “bigger” clubs are left to sweat or lick their wounds.