THE pre-match song of choice for Paul Warne and his Rotherham United braves was George Michael’s Faith – and the soundtrack afterwards should have been Robbie Williams’s No Regrets.
At the highest ground in England, Warne’s Millers, shattered to a man after expending a colossal amount of physical and emotional energy this season, portrayed the lows associated with a side whose race was run at the final whistle.
But the defiant, stirring and admirable reaction of those who travelled down from South Yorkshire and have been with them on this particular journey every step of the way since August ensured that heads were held aloft as United’s hearty brigade walked off the turf at The Hawthorns.
Relegation, yes, but with pride emphatically restored. This was nothing like the demotion of two years earlier that Warne called “embarrassing”. Or the pitiful 2004-05 campaign, the Millers’ previous second-tier relegation when they were down with over a month of the season still to go.
This was a side who intermittently landed punches on the big boys in a division where they simply had no right to do so. A division where the disparity between their own resources and all of their rivals represented a vast chasm and not merely a gap.
Fittingly it was displayed in Saturday’s penultimate appointment of the season at West Brom. But despite the fighters’ heart and ability to punch above their weight, the bell eventually would toll for Rotherham after soaking up too much punishment.
Once the swelling goes down there should be consolation for a playing and coaching staff whose togetherness is touch-tight and whose organisation and character are beyond question.
It is a side with a footballing identity and soul in the best traditions of the Millers’ better days and one where lifelong friendships have been brokered.
It is a unit who could simultaneously give no more, but are able to look themselves in the mirror.
Warne, choked with emotion in his post-match interview on Saturday evening, reflected: “All the fans stayed and clapped the team off. A lot of my team were in tears, as they were in the dressing room. They have given everything for this great club.
“The fact that the West Brom fans clapped my team off means the world. It shows they understand what a game they had been in, what a fight we had put up.
“There is no shame in what has happened. I am really proud of the group.
“What is there to criticise? People can criticise me, that is fine. But I do not see how any criticism can be levelled at the team.
“Unfortunately some people in that dressing room will leave in the summer and I feel like a primary school teacher at the end of the year when all my kids run for cover. I feel a bit heartbroken because I know there are some really good friendships in there.
“We have tried to go toe-to-toe with some ridiculous clubs and I think we have made people proud in the town.”
A draw for relegation rivals Millwall in the early kick-off provided the Millers with an inkling of hope, but with the realisation that only a win would do to take their fates to the last game of the season with Middlesbrough.
Historic inspiration was also to be found with the Millers having triumphed on their last league visit to Albion, thanks to Chris Sedgwick’s goal in a shock 1-0 win against another promotion-chasing Albion side in February, 2004.
The hunger and desire almost exclusively came from those in visiting jerseys in the first period, with West Brom – with play-off qualification sealed – very much looking a side keeping their powder dry for key battles ahead.
The woodwork denied Clark Robertson early on following his powerful header from Joe Newell’s inswinging corner, and Craig Dawson was well stationed to clear off the line after Kyle Bartley’s miscued header.
The goal that the Millers had been threatening arrived early in the second half with Robertson’s looping header diverted onto the crossbar by Dawson before bouncing over the line, referee Robert Jones showing no hesitation in awarding a goal.
Piqued into action, West Brom took the cue to rouse themselves for the remainder of the game and, try as they might, the doughty visitors could not stem the tide.
Mason Holgate spurned one glorious opportunity and was then thwarted by Marek Rodak before Albion were the beneficiaries of a soft-looking penalty after Dwight Gayle went down under pressure from Michael Smith – with the Millers’ dismay compounded by the fact that they should have been awarded a throw-in during the build-up.
Jay Rodriguez was not one to ask questions and blasted in the penalty and two minutes later Rekeem Harper’s arrowing low drive completed the comeback.
The hosts had chances to seal it as United poured forward with the game ending with Newell blasting against the woodwork and the Millers fittingly on the front foot in a season when they have given their all.
On agonisingly just failing to take their fates to the last day, Warne added: “I always say to the players that good things happen to good people and there was a real belief that it would happen.
“In the team meeting on Friday night I played Faith by George Michael. Everybody had to hug everybody else in the room and thank them for the season.”
West Bromwich Albion: Johnstone; Dawson, Bartley, Hegazi; Holgate (Murphy 78), Harper, Brunt, Gibbs, Johansen (Phillips 67); Rodriguez (Robson-Kanu 86), Gayle. Unused substitutes: Bond, Adarabioyo, Townsend, Field.
Rotherham United: Rodak; Jones (Vassell 82), Ihiekwe, Robertson, Mattock; Ajayi; Forde (Williams 82), Vaulks (Towell 72), Crooks, Newell; Smith. Unused substitutes: Price, Wood, Taylor.