Steve Evans is hoping for the perfect birthday gift – confirmation that his Rotherham United side are genuine League One promotion contenders.
The Millers manager turns 51 on October 30, by which time his side will have come through a tough month of fixtures against most of their promotion rivals.
Promoted Millers sit in the final play-off spot with 19 points from 10 games, but Evans is loathe to talk about Rotherham’s promotion prospects just yet.
In the middle of a six-match spell – “a tricky phase” – Rotherham slipped to a narrow defeat to promotion favourites Peterborough United before an impressive away win at Brentford.
The Millers followed that with another away win in midweek, negotiating a tricky Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie away to League Two York City.
After today’s visit of Swindon Town, Rotherham face testing trips to MK Dons and runaway leaders Leyton Orient – either side of the return of Ronnie Moore to South Yorkshire with struggling Tranmere Rovers.
“We are in the middle of arguably one of the toughest spells of our season,” said Evans.
“There’s three spells over the course of the season that you look at and identify as tough.
“You don’t get much tougher than Peterborough, Brentford, Swindon, MK Dons, Leyton Orient – and, of course, the return of Ronnie Moore with Tranmere in between all that.
“It’s a real difficult spell for us, but the squad is big enough and good enough to cope with it.”
There is no talk of back-to-back promotions at Rotherham just yet, but Evans accepts that may change over the course of the next four games if they gain maximum points.
After the trip to leaders Orient on October 26, the Millers will have played everyone in the current top 10 bar Bradford City – another Yorkshire club chasing successive promotions – and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Evans insisted: “There’s no thoughts inside the dressing room of automatic promotion or the play-offs. It’s about embracing League One and making sure we can adapt to it. We are still finding out about the league.
“These teams are a true benchmark of where we are.
“If we come through this spell, I will probably sit down at the end of October and be able to tell you where I think we are.
“I believe in this group, but I believed in this group when we lost 5-0 to Dagenham and 6-2 at Port Vale (last season).
“There’s been some changes since then, of course, but what we have in this group is a dressing room with a desire to work hard.
“If they work hard you always have a chance, and on top of that you have to have ability because this is a serious league.
“We have some undoubted ability, and thanks to the chairman (Tony Stewart) who stayed strong back in January and the summer, when we didn’t sell any players, we are fortunate to have the players we have.
“I have always said, privately to the staff, that come the end of October I will be another year older and will be able to sit there on my birthday and I will be able to assess where we are.
“I can say ‘yes, we do have a chance here’, or ‘yes we do have a chance, but I think we still need x, y, z’. Some of that could be luck, or a player. Or it may be after that period we are a little bit short.
“You have to be honest with yourself when you have that appraisal.”
Honesty is not something lacking when it comes to dealing with Evans, as striker Danny Hylton discovered when he reported for training in the summer.
The 24-year-old – signed from Aldershot in June – was deemed to be out of shape. He finally made his first start at York on Tuesday, after a substitute cameo role at Brentford, and is starting to impress his new manager.
“He lived in the summer like I lived, which is not very good, in terms of eating habits,” admitted Evans. “It took him a while to work that off.
“What happens is that you form opinions, people get in front of you who have looked after themselves and worked hard, and you end up swimming against the current.
“But full credit to Danny Hylton, he has worked his socks off with the coaching staff, morning, noon and lots of evenings to get in the shape he has.
“That’s why I handed him the chance to be part of it. I thought he was excellent at Brentford for 20 minutes, showing sheer effort, commitment and the passion to get us a result.
“The longer the game went against York, I thought the more he got involved.
“He’s of good character, and that gives him a chance. He wants to get better, everybody likes him. I don’t think he will mind me sharing the story of when I asked him what he had had for dinner and he replied, ‘chicken nuggets and chips, the same as the little lad’.
“When I shared that with our medical team they thought I was winding them up. He now has a controlled diet and the chicken nuggets are out of the window.”
Swindon are the visitors today, and Evans has highlighted the strike duo of Nile Ranger – the former Sheffield Wednesday loanee who has played in the Premier League with Newcastle United – and Frenchman Danny N’Guessan as their biggest threats.
Ranger’s career has suffered due to off-field problems, but he helped Wednesday gain promotion from League One two seasons ago and is a real talent.
Evans also knows N’Guessan well, having given the 26-year-old his first taste of English football at Boston while on loan from Scottish side Rangers in 2006.
“Swindon pass for fun all over the pitch,” said Evans. “They are big and strong up front. They have Nile Ranger, who has played in the Premier League.
“He could be at that level if he hadn’t had some difficult off-field situations.
“And also Danny N’Guessan, a young man who I brought to English football from Glasgow Rangers. He is someone I know well and an excellent signing from Millwall.
“We tried to bring Danny on loan here last year, he is a terrific lad, big strong and physical.”