MENTION Villa Park to Ryan Manning and you are likely to receive the warmest of smiles.
Lining up at one of the traditional cathedrals of English football will be on the bucket-list of most Championship players who have come up the hard way through the lower leagues or provincial footballing backwaters – and the Rotherham United loanee can regale his team-mates with his own special memory.
The one-time Galway United player has not only won there, but provided a goalscoring contribution too – in parent club QPR’s shock 3-1 victory at Aston Villa in mid-March.
The midfielder got in front of ex-England captain John Terry to nod the R’s in front early on, with the visitors being one of just two sides to beat Villa on home turf in the Championship last term.
Manning’s current side may be at generous odds to secure their first victory at Villa Park since October 1971, but the Irishman and his colleagues should not be short be in terms of motivation or confidence levels either.
The 22-year-old crowned an eye-catching start to life with the Millers with the decisive moment from the penalty spot in Saturday’s stand-out win over Derby County, a result that ruffled the feathers of one of the division’s well-fancied sides in the process.
Rest assured it will also have resonated at Derby’s aspiring Midlands rivals of Villa, Nottingham Forest and Stoke City – the Millers’ next three opponents – too.
Reflecting on that victory with QPR, the last team to win at B6, Manning said: “I do not think anyone gave us a chance to win there. It was a good night out and a Tuesday night as well.
“I had not been in the starting 11 for a few weeks and when I scored, it was more relief than anything else.
“Scoring goals is the best part of football and to get one at Villa Park, which is such a big stadium gives you good memories. It was a big away win for us at the time.”
If we have the right frame of mind and right instructions, we have a chance of getting three points.Rotherham United’s Ryan Manning
On tonight’s appointment, he added: “I would not say it is a free hit for us. But it is one of those games where we can just see if we can get anything out of the game. We (QPR) went with that attitude last season and went with a game plan and implemented it.
“It worked then, so I think it gives us hope that, if we have the right frame of mind and right instructions, we have a chance of getting three points.
“The Championship is full of big names and clubs who you would say should be Premier League ones. For us to be playing massive clubs and getting results like that against Derby can only build confidence and get the squad believing that we can more than compete in this division.
“Wins like that are priceless in terms of camaraderie in the group and confidence.”
Manning’s eyes may light up at any mention of Villa Park, but address the topic of Championshipaway form to Paul Warne and the smile you will receive would be a wry one.
The Millers chief endured some bleak days on the road in his spell in charge in the second half of 2016-17, a season which saw Rotherham fail to win away during the campaign and suffer 21 league losses – and take just two points from a possible 69.
This season has kicked off with three successive away defeats and all told, the Millers have failed to win in their last 28 league matches on their travels at this level.
Yet the law of averages would suggest that the spell must surely break some time soon for the Millers – who have already won three league matches this term.
They should also be heartened by dominant displays for spells in their last two away games, at Wigan Athletic and Leeds United too, alongside a spirited cup exit at Premier League side Everton.
Tonight, they encounter a home side and a manager in Steve Bruce under growing pressure after a six-match winless streak in all competitions.
Warne said: “The big clubs are big clubs for a reason; they are historically big clubs who pay excellent wages and that allows them to go shopping in a different shop.
“But I do not get hung up on that and do not get hung up with the names on the back of the shirts. We always respect the opposition, but do not fear them.
“I think we are the underdogs in most games we play in. Villa Park is a pretty amazing place and I said to the lads: ‘do not get carried away when you see ‘European Cup Winner’ above your head and on the ceiling.
“It is an amazing, historical place, like it was when we went to Everton. (But) I do not think my lads are overawed.
“We ask them to go out and play with a freedom, but with a massive amount of effort and a smile on their face. We say: ‘Just go out and enjoy your life’.
“If you do not enjoy playing at Villa Park, no matter what the scoreline, then you are definitely in the wrong job.”
Last six games: Aston Villa DDDLLD; Rotherham LLWLLW.
Referee: A Davies (Hampshire).
Last time: Aston Villa 3 Rotherham 0; August 13, 2016; Championship.