Rotherham United v Portsmouth: New band of brothers help lift Millers

AS cinema-goer Will Vaulks watched British war drama film Darkest Hour earlier this week, he would have been forgiven for subconsciously casting his mind back to 12 months ago.

Rotherham's Will Vaulks: Ready to push on. 
Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Rotherham's Will Vaulks: Ready to push on. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

At the start of 2017, the midfielder and his Rotherham United team-mates were experiencing a bleak mid-winter during the sort of season that enters club folklore for all the wrong reasons.

The Millers’ own version of the January blues saw a run of four losses in five Championship matches arrive to effectively consign the club to relegation, bar the mathematical confirmation which would come later. An embarrassing FA Cup exit at home to lower-league opposition added to the pain.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

A year on and, thankfully, the mood music could not be more different.

On comfortably their longest unbeaten League One sequence of the season, Paul Warne’s side – who have not lost in seven matches since the start of December – are finally displaying conviction, consistency and resolve in their play-off pitch.

Looking at their next three fixtures, all at home, you sense the timing is perfectly synchronised for the eighth-placed Millers to make their move.

Two teams with promotion designs arrive in Portsmouth and Bradford City before struggling AFC Wimbledon call in on February 3. Opportunity knocks.

On the contrast between now and this time last year, Vaulks told The Yorkshire Post: “I think definitely on the whole, the club is in a much better place and on the way up.

Rotherham United's David Ball. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“Last year was tough – not just with the results, but in the whole place, which was not as good as it is now. The training ground is also better and the fans seem more behind us.

“It is credit to the manager, to be fair. All the players who he has brought in have bought into it as well. That is definitely why we are in a good place, at the moment.

“We had seven games of disappointment, which was not good enough and we have got over that now and are on a good run. I personally feel we should be up there anyway and we are about where we should be (now) and want to get a little bit higher.

“I think at the moment we are in a good run of form and with a few more points, we will get up to where we think we should be.

Rotherham United's David Ball. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“The next two games are pretty big against two good teams in and around us in the league and maximum points would be ideal.

“They will be two of the toughest games we have had in a while, but we are ready for it and in good form. So bring it on.”

Around a month-and-a-half ago when the Christmas decorations were being put up, that sense of anticipation was not as noticeable.

Trailing 1-0 at Blackpool, heading into the final quarter of the game on December 9, the Millers’ winless league streak was in grave danger of extending into an alarming eighth match.

Redemption was at hand, by way of a priceless late double from David Ball, which provided the visitors with a badly-needed catalyst to their season in a town made famous for illuminations.

Suffice to say that the Millers have not looked back since. Or been beaten, either.

Vaulks commented: “Blackpool was a massive game. At half-time, the fans weren’t too happy and we weren’t. Since the second-half turn-around with Bally’s two goals, that has really kicked us on. It is what we needed; just a little bit of luck and graft.

“It is funny how it changes the momentum. Now, we feel like we are going to win most games as opposed to that spell where we went into games thinking we might lose. Subconsciously, that happens – no matter how much you tell yourself it does not.

“It was definitely a big game and looking back, it is a turning point for the last few months and we have picked up some good wins. We needed it and could not keep continuing the way we were.

“We knew we had the quality, but are now showing that bit of graft and determination to keep the ball out of our own net and getting late goals and showing our fitness levels are better than other teams. A few (players) are coming into their own, now.”

In a dressing room full of good people and the right types, according to Vaulks, character currently looks in plentiful supply.

The scars of those who were part of the Millers’ wretched relegation season have healed and mental toughness seems to have been forged in the process.

With a principled manager in Warne insisting that the club purchase not just good players, but sound individuals last summer, the newcomers have also injected some solidity to the dressing room, too.

Of late, it has helped the team to cope with the exit of talismanic loan forward Kieffer Moore. Another big character in Lee Frecklington has also now left, but there are plenty of other leaders making themselves heard.

Among that number is Vaulks, who is starting to come into his own after suffering a harsh Millers baptism last season.

He added: “One of the manager’s mantras is that he wants good people and people who want to be here. Those brought in have bought in that. It is a very good dressing room and we are hungry, young players.

“His recruitment in getting the right characters has been very good.

“You need natural leaders and you all have to step up and we have done when people have been out injured.

“It is a shame Frecks has gone; he was a massive part of Rotherham’s recent history and a great captain.

“But that is football, you cannot rest on your laurels and Frecks has gone and there are no emotions in football, we go again and must step up now.”