TRADITIONALLY, there are plenty of similarities between Rotherham and Wigan.
Both these earnest industrial towns reside close to former coalfields and have learned how to survive in the shadows of the nearby big cities of Sheffield and Manchester and forge their own respective identities in the process.
That much is also true in the footballing realm, most famously manifested in Wigan Athletic’s magnificent FA Cup final win over a giant on their doorstep in Manchester City in May, 2013 – in a glorious interlude which struck a blow for ‘small’ clubs everywhere.
Rotherham United have had their moments, too, if not quite as feted as the events of May 11, 2013.
Yet while there may be common ground among weather-worn fans of these two clubs, who were raised on the terraces of Millmoor and Springfield Park before progressing to the plush seats of the AESSEAL New York Stadium and DW Stadium, there is plenty to separate the clubs in these modern times.
It is something that a man who has played for both clubs in Millers manager Paul Warne is acutely aware of.
They spent five or six million in the summer and brought some quality in this window and they are, with all due respect, a Premier League club.Rotherham United boss Paul Warne
Back then, the Latics side whom he joined from non-league Wroxham in 1997 were at their old, much-loved but antiquated home and ensconsed in mid-table of the third tier.
Their side was predominantly comprised of seasoned professionals, although there was some exoticism of the shape of Spanish midfielders Roberto Martinez and Isidro Diaz, two-thirds of the ‘Three Amigos’ line-up who headed to Wigan from Iberia in 1995 – the other being Jesus Seba, who left a year later.
This century, more acclaimed talent from abroad has arrived in Wigan in the shape of Antonio Valencia, Maynor Figueroa and Hugo Rodallega and while their current line-up has more of a British feel, it has come at some comparative expense.
The Latics’ big summer signing was Rangers forward and Huddersfield Town product Josh Windass for around £2m – Rotherham’s transfer record stands at £500,000.
Considerable outlays have also been spent upon the likes of Joe Garner and Lee Evans, while Wigan’s wage budget helped them bring in Leon Clarke last month – just the sort of striker who would have added to United’s own relegation fight.
Yet should Rotherham prevail today, then the gap between the duo, who are separated by two places in the table, will be cut to just three points.
No mean feat, given the reality of where both clubs are operating with the perception of the Millers and Wigan being cut from the same Championship cloth being slightly skewed.
Warne, seeking to back up last weekend’s gritty performance and a point at Millwall with another positive result against a side in the Millers’ vicinity of the table, said: “I think Wigan finished 18 points ahead of us in League One (last season) and we have come into the Championship with a different squad and have not added greatly to it.
“They spent five or six million in the summer and brought some quality in this window and they are, with all due respect, a Premier League club.
“But the fact that we are only seven points behind them is credit to the lads.”
“It is weird. Whenever you play a team around about you, people who do not possibly know much about football think this is an easy game.
“There is no easy game in this league at all. Sheffield Wednesday went to Ipswich last week and scored in the last minute. Not one game is a ‘gimme’ in this league and every one is an absolute cup final as you have to be on it from the first to the 95th. You have no divine right to win any game.
“We are all trying to get our lads to compete in a really tough league. All the teams in the bottom eight find wins really hard to come by.
“When you win football matches and go out and feel invincible, it is like paper-tissue thick.”
For Warne, the Championship is – and will continue to be – a school of hard knocks.
A year ago, it was sunshine and roses in comparison.
In the midst of a season-defining 14-match unbeaten sequence, his Millers side were smack bang in the middle of a marvellous seven-game winning sequence – which evoked memories of their magic nine-match winning streak in the old second division in the late winter of 1982.
Now, life is far less straightforward, as Warne knew it would always be. But it is no less rewarding, with draws and wins being earned the hard way as the fourth-from-bottom Millers seek to clinch their Championship safety, a feat which would eclipse their promotion of last term.
On whether he is enjoying this season more than the 2018-19 campaign, Warne acknowledged: “Probably, yes.
“On match-days, there is bigger fear as you see the opposition teams and substitutes and think: ‘Wow’. I do enjoy League One at some grounds and think: ‘We are going to be great today’ and that is a lovely feeling as a manager and a fan, no doubt.
“But there are different pressures and the pressure in League One is to win every game and there are no excuses.
“Whereas in this league, there has to be an acceptance to if both teams play at their absolute best, there is a good chance you are going to lose.
“But I have enjoyed it and long may it continue. I am not spitting blood or anything, which is a positive.
“I like to think everyone who turns up here really appreciates what the lads are doing on a weekly basis to maintain Championship survival, have a good summer and have another go next season.”
Should that be achieved, it would be an accomplishment to rank with anything in the EFL this season.